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Test Prep for Special Ed Students

On a gray afternoon, in the unnatural stillness that takes over school buildings when their classroom clocks are closing in on 4 p.m., teacher Sabriyah Swain huddled over a table with three students while two others worked nearby on computers.

"Do you see the mistake you made?" Swain asked an eighth-grader laboring over math problems fourth-graders can solve.

"Why were they sitting in?" she asked another student, trying to help him construct a simple sentence about the civil rights struggle.

The students are in the after-school tutoring program created by A.I. du Pont Middle School in Greenville in hopes of raising its test scores. Improving the scores is the only way the century-old school can shed the poor rating it received under No Child Left Behind, the federal school accountability law.

But Swain's pupils are special-education students, slowed by learning disabilities, some easily diagnosed, others puzzling. The student baffled by math, for instance, reads and writes above grade level. Another student, perhaps autistic, has an exceptional vocabulary but often loses focus midway through a simple academic task and can't finish. One eighth-grader reads at a second-grade level.

The 78 special-education students enrolled at A.I. Middle are among some 200 students being tutored there after school because No Child Left Behind requires special-education students to take the same standardized tests as non-special-education students their age - regardless of the grade level at which the learning-disabled students are learning.

Even if all of A.I. Middle's non-special-education students pass the tests that begin Thursday in Delaware public schools, the school will still get a poor rating if too many special-education students fail. Schools with poor ratings could ultimately lose federal money and be put in the hands of private management companies.

Hence, the push to increase the percentage of special-education students doing well on tests that many parents and special-education experts believe are inappropriate for them.

"All these tests. They're not caring how it affects the kids," said Edna Fairley. She praises her seventh-grade son's teachers but scorns the tests that she said undermine the self-confidence parents of special-education students work so hard to instill in their children.

"I just tell him to do the best he can," she said of the testing. "I don't want him ... up there getting nervous and scared and really doubting his ability, and that's what happens."

Fairley said her son has made substantial progress but no child, special education or not, should be evaluated on the basis of one standardized test. She said parents should "band together" to change the law.

Tall order ahead

To meet the federal target for its special-education group, A.I. Middle, which is in the Red Clay Consolidated School District, needs more special-education students, perhaps as few as 10 more, to pass the tests than last year. But for special education, that's a tall order.

Last year, only seven of the 30 special-education eighth-graders taking the state reading test passed; in math, only eight of 31 passed. In most cases, students had the accommodations the law allows them - extra time, calculators and someone to read the test to them.

"We have some kids who take the eighth-grade math test who are functioning at the second-grade level," said Deborah Hale, the special-education diagnostician.

Hale pointed out that all special-education students, under other federal laws that govern their civil rights, have an individual learning plan. Under the plans, students must be continuously tested during the academic year and their progress charted to protect them against academic neglect.

Those progress reports, several teachers suggested, would be a better measure for No Child Left Behind than state standardized tests.

Not an assembly line

For Swain, Hale and the other special-education teachers at A.I. Middle, the drive to treat all children alike in testing is a glaring, if not painful, contradiction to their training.

"We're not the GM plant," said Maggie Mancini, who has been teaching special education in Red Clay for 18 years and came to A.I. Middle this year. "We're working with children, and each child has his or her own learning strengths and weaknesses."

Teachers said it's a given that even smaller classes than they already have would help more special-education children to pass the tests. But budgets being what they are, smaller classes are a pipe dream, they said.

Diane Brigham, the special-education team leader, has only 10 children in her sixth-grade afternoon reading class. But to watch is to see what special education is up against. The students read at five different grade levels, meaning Brigham's is a non-stop, 50-minute juggling act.

To the student reading at a high level, whose hand is usually the first in the air, she gives reassurance before calling on others.

"I'm not going to give you a chance to say the word because I want to give someone else a chance to say it," she said during one class. "But keep it. I may have to come back to you."

When no one else could answer correctly, she did just that.

Keeping another student, a hyperactive child with behavior problems, engaged is a full-time job. To that student, Brigham directed a steady stream of patter, lest he become so disruptive that he would have to be removed.

"You're trying hard today, aren't you," she told him, just before he jumped up asking to pass out papers. When he finished in a flash, he cast about for something else to do besides sit down.

"He is a challenge to me," Brigham said after class. "There are days that I keep thinking, 'What could I have done differently?' The bottom line is, I keep thinking, 'If he was my child, how would I want somebody to deal with him?' "

Bold prediction

Brigham, who has been at A.I. Middle for 20 of the 34 years she has taught special education, said that she can't retire, not before she learns how to reach every child who comes to her. "I keep saying, I've got to get it right."

Brigham predicted the testing provision for special-education students in No Child Left Behind will be repealed.

"Somebody's going to get some sense between now and 2014," the year by which the law requires 100 percent of special-education students to pass their state tests. "I just believe that something that seems this unfair," she said, will "come to the attention of the right people."

She said she doesn't allow herself to dwell on the pressure the testing law can put on a teacher.

"If I get myself so anxious about a test score, it's going to, you know, get in my way of the real target of why we're here. ... Part of the challenge is to get them to be the best that they can be and when that occurs ... it just seems to be enough to keep me going. Is that weird?"

— Michelle Fuetsch
Special ed a challenge
The News Journal


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