Special Kids, Standardized Tests
Parents, educators question use of same yardstick for every student
In the federal government's quest to assess every public school student, special-needs children must take standardized tests they are more likely to fail than are typical students.
And when special-needs children fail, schools fail too, under the standards of the No Child Left Behind act.
The federal reform legislation requires that almost all children be tested by the same standards to ensure they are reaching their potential. If schools fail to show progress, harsh penalties will follow.
But assessing special-needs children with standardized tests is unrealistic because, in most cases, they can't perform as well academically as typical students, many parents and school officials say.
Their message: holding schools accountable for students who have a clear disadvantage misses the point.
"I have no problem with being held accountable," said Gary Hein, principal of Euclid Middle School in Littleton. "I welcome it. But a test will never increase these kids' cognitive abilities. There is just a reality to that.
"We would rather teach these kids to be successful in life than try to make them do well on a test."
Measuring progress is not a one-size-fits-all proposition, and more flexibility is needed in defining academic achievement, parents say.
Special-needs children must overcome a range of challenges. Some have only mild behavioral difficulties, such as attention deficit disorder; others have physical disabilities; and still others have severe cognitive problems.
In Colorado, roughly 74,000 special-needs students must be tested along with typical students. The special-needs children have posted the lowest scores on such exams, according to state Department of Education numbers.
But state education officials and national advocates laud the testing as an inclusive tool for evaluating all students. They say such testing is a critical component for ensuring that special-needs children are included in mainstream education.
"No one wants to set a child up for failure," said Patrick Chapman, the state Department of Education's director of federal programs in the Office of Special Services. "This is a way to measure how they perform up to the standards."
Everyone involved with special- needs students agrees the children should be included in as much typical curricula as possible. But they disagree on whether testing is another part of inclusion or a wedge driving special-needs programs away.
Parents' fear: Testing will eventually lead schools back to segregating special-needs students. They test. They fail. And because failing can carry harsh penalties for the school, they are shunned.
"There is a rhetorical worry among parents about a potential backlash against special-needs programs," said Lucinda Hundley, who is in charge of special-needs programs in Littleton Public Schools.
No Child Left Behind
Making the grade on yearly testing is mandatory for schools and districts under No Child Left Behind.
Failure to meet a complex set of requirements means probation the first year. If schools repeatedly fail, students can transfer and require the failing school to provide transportation. Other penalties include financial losses as well as takeover of faculty and curriculum.
Students are categorized for testing based on race, economic background, English proficiency and special needs. Scores for special- needs students are counted equally with other categories.
Because of the penalties, schools and districts are under pressure to pass standardized tests. Hundley said it is not difficult to imagine that principals might make schools unwelcome for special-needs students to enhance their chances of passing - though she said it has not happened in her district.
"There are schools that do not meet (the yearly testing requirements) because of the special- needs subcategory," Hundley said.
According to the state Education Department, special-needs students last year failed to meet reading and math standards at every tested level - third through 10th grade. They also scored the lowest at every grade.
Such disparities prompted the federal government in December to ease requirements by allowing alternative testing for 1 percent of the student body. That way, the most disadvantaged students could take a more remedial test.
The alternate test accounts for disabled children without excluding them - the primary goal of many in the field of special education, said Paul Marchand, staff director of The Arc of the United States and United Cerebral Palsy. Marchand worked with the White House on the "1 percent rule."
"The last thing we want is another excuse to exclude special-needs kids," Marchand said. "The goal (of No Child Left Behind) is to have every student do well. That is a worthy goal."
But doubters say more exceptions are needed. Between the special-needs students with minor behavioral disabilities and the 1 percent with the most pronounced cognitive difficulties, there are still too many students who are tested on material they have no hope of understanding, critics say.
"When you test them like this, all you do is set up a roadblock to demolish self-esteem," said Janet Deutsch, mother of a special-needs student at Euclid Middle School. "It makes them feel totally inadequate because it is totally unfamiliar material."
One child's struggles
On the day he was born, Michael Deutsch weighed only slightly more than a bottle of soda. Complications during his development left him with cognitive and physical disabilities, including cerebral palsy.
Now a sixth-grader at Euclid, Michael goes to class with his peers. But his teachers and parents have set up a personalized curriculum for him.
While the other kids read up on Mesopotamia and the tea trade with China, Michael's teacher picks a few topical vocabulary words for him.
Michael's cognitive skills limit his ability to understand the abstract.
"I can't hand him 'Mesopotamia,"' Janet Deutsch said. "It is hard for him to understand things we can't put in front of him. But the socialization he gets from being in class is invaluable."
Last year, Michael was tested on the same material as every child his own age. He went from learning to count money on a Friday to being tested on long division on Monday.
Janet Deutsch said anxiety brought on by the testing overwhelmed Michael. He had a seizure.
"I was furious," she said. "(Testing) isn't a measurement of what he has done. They could put it in Greek, and it would be just as inappropriate."
For the Deutsch family, assessing where Michael ranked in the state was not worth putting him through the tests. This year, they pulled him out of the testing altogether.
But the decision was difficult even after Michael's seizure. With Michael removed from testing, his school is penalized with an automatic zero under No Child Left Behind.
Deutsch said it creates a paradox for a district such as Littleton Public Schools that has above-average special-needs programs: Because the program is strong, more families with special-needs students come to them.
"We moved here for this school," Janet Deutsch said. "We are here because they are excellent with Michael. But now, to protect him, we have to hurt our school."
Hein, Euclid's principal, said he sympathizes with the Deutsch family.
"It is that juxtaposition of parental choice and holding schools accountable," Hein said. "I'm in favor of both, but this seems to put those issues at odds."
Searching for options
In 1997, a law was specifically passed for special-needs students. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandates that teachers, parents and administrators create a specific education plan for each disabled student.
Michael's program needs to focus on his specific needs, not a test, his mother said.
"He has an IQ of about 70," she said. "No amount of testing is going to change that. But I have a 28-page document that explains exactly what his teachers and his parents expect of him. So why, when testing comes around, do we throw (the plan) out the window?"
Those plans remain the "blueprint" for special-needs students' education, said Jim Bradshaw, spokesman for the U.S. Education Department. But he said it is imperative to set high expectations to encourage schools to do even better.
The bottom line, Marchand said, is that special-needs children need to be included under No Child Left Behind. While it's difficult to legislate the specifics, he said, all kids have their strengths that need to be developed.
How that translates for assessing the progress of special-needs children, Marchand acknowledges, is tricky.
"What happens when that child with an IQ of 70 has well-trained teachers and access to the curriculum he is tested on?" he said.
"The jury is still out on that."
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