States Argue How to Count Children with Learning Disabilities
SILVER SPRING, Md., Every afternoon, a half-dozen fourth and fifth graders with learning disabilities gather in Julie Grant's classroom at Broad Acres Elementary. Some struggle to turn the words they see and hear into coherent thoughts, others to concentrate.
For now, the future of Broad Acres could depend on how well Ms. Grant's tiny class does on the state's achievement tests. Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, every category of student at Broad Acres — including special education — must show improvement or the entire school can face penalties.
But like a dozen other states, Maryland is hoping to circumvent those rules, asking to count students like Ms. Grant's only as children of poverty, a big group that would hide any lack of academic growth.
Maryland officials say their proposals would avoid large numbers of schools being labeled "in need of improvement" when only small numbers of students are doing poorly. If changes are not made, said Nancy Grasmick, Maryland's superintendent of schools, "there'll be a lot of anger on the part of the community," some of it possibly directed at the special education students.
So far, the federal government seems receptive to the states' concerns. It is already allowing four states, in addition to Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, to require schools to have larger numbers of disabled or non-English-speaking children in order to be judged by their performance, and it is expected to approve similar proposals from at least five more.
But many parents of children with disabilities, who embraced No Child Left Behind because of its pledge to rate schools by the performance of all kinds of students, say they are outraged by the special allowances. "The purpose of the law is to see what's what," said Ricki Sabia, associate director of the National Policy Center at the National Down Syndrome Society. "It's not to make schools look good."
"Those of us who know the potential of the law are trying to cling to it," said Ms. Sabia, who is the mother of a child with Down syndrome here in Montgomery County.
Under the law, high-poverty schools labeled "in need of improvement" for more than two years must spend up to 20 percent of their federal aid to send students to more successful schools and to tutor students who do not transfer. After four years of unsatisfactory progress, a school could be closed and reopened under new management.
The changes Maryland is proposing in relabeling special ed students would not only obscure some numbers, but would likely increase the scores for special ed, since the children remaining in that category would largely be white students from affluent families who generally do better on tests.
But even they may not be counted. Maryland is also proposing to exclude any group that makes up less than 15 percent of the student population at the district and state levels, a threshold that would largely eliminate both disabled children and those learning English from the federal law's accountability system. The state estimates that under the proposed rules, marginal schools would shrink to 26 percent, from 36 percent, and only 9 school districts, rather than all 24, would fall short .
Other states are making different statistical moves, but all would ease the rigor of the federal law, which says that schools must break down test scores for every subgroup above a certain size — by race, poverty, ethnicity, disability and English-learners — and that each group must make adequate progress on annual tests. Under the federal law, states get to choose the minimum size necessary to produce statistically reliable gauge of school quality.
Most commonly, states want to raise the minimum group size for including children who are either disabled or deficient in English in school accountability profiles. In Missouri, for example, there must be 30 children in a given subgroup for a school to be held responsible for their performance, unless they are disabled or have limited English. Then there must be 50.
Raymond J. Simon, the federal Education Department assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, said states were right to wrest the maximum flexibility from the law.
State officials maintain that there are sound statistical reasons for their requests. The range of disabilities among special ed students makes the group's membership highly variable, they say, and so a larger number of test-takers is needed to produce statistically reliable results.
Such steps have been approved in Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Wisconsin, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., and five more states have requests pending. About 26 states are also using a statistical device known as a confidence interval, a cushion for error based on the size of the sample, and 7 more have asked to follow suit. The effect of using a 99 percent confidence interval is significant, if seemingly technical: For a class of 30 minority students at a school where 40 percent of each group must pass a given exam, the cushion grants the school victory if only 17 percent, or 5 rather than 12 students, succeed.
In those states, raising the minimum number of disabled or foreign-born students to judge a school does not heighten reliability, since the confidence interval already compensates for smaller populations by giving wide berth for error. The effect, rather, is to exclude schools with lower numbers of poor, disabled or non-English-speaking children from being judged by how well they educate those groups.
In addition, some statisticians — like William H. Schmidt of Michigan State University, who is the national research coordinator for the Third International Mathematics and Science Study — question the validity of using confidence intervals for this purpose. The cushions are most often used to allow for variations in statistical sampling, but schools are reporting on actual students, not samples of them.
James H. Wendorf, executive director of the National Center for Learning Disabilities, said: "We're very concerned that students with disabilities are being hidden, pushed into corners and closets and not really brought into the assessment process. I'm afraid that these numbers games are another way for schools to say, `We just can't educate students with disabilities.' "
Advocates for children with limited English are also unhappy about the changes.
Raul Gonzalez, legislative director for the National Council of La Raza, said he was initially hopeful about the law's potential, but has grown "deeply disappointed."
"The administration's really greased the wheels for this law to be a spectacular failure in the very minority communities that it's supposed to benefit," Mr. Gonzalez said.
The efforts by states to lessen No Child Left Behind's reach has not come as a surprise to many education analysts.
"The law is unworkable, and so states have figured out clever ways to keep it from being the case that all schools are going to end up in the `needs improvement' category," said Robert L. Linn, co-director of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Student Standards and Testing.
Here in Montgomery County, parents of disabled children said they were bracing for disappointment. In recent years, many disabled students took the same standardized reading tests as other children, but Maryland never reported thousands of their scores, saying special accommodations for their disabilities invalidated the results. Officials say they have now fixed the problem and are reporting test scores for those children.
"We have school systems tweaking these rules endlessly because they're desperate to show improvement," said Robert Astrove, the father of two disabled boys in Rockville. "And the kids are the ones who suffer for it."
At Broad Acres Elementary, where Ms. Grant teaches, the state's tough accountability system was instrumental in revitalizing the school. Faced with the threat of takeover, the principal, Jody Leleck, formulated a plan to raise achievement, and won a reprieve.
She asked teachers for a three-year commitment to the school and persuaded them to stay late on Wednesday afternoons to compare notes, and plan short-term targets for each subject. Ms. Grant attends the same meetings and shares the same goals as the rest of the faculty.
Occasionally, she said, her students outdo other children on the weekly targets. She confessed dismay at the prospect that their achievements would not be reported separately in the school's rating. Knowing that her children's scores would affect the school's profile would keep her focused on their progress, she said.
"If the expectation is not there for special education students, then what are their teachers teaching them?" she asked. "Are we just writing them off?"
Diana Jean Schemo
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