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Feds Won't Let Texas Give Different Test to Special Ed Students

Ohanian Comment: Am I missing something: If students could do the "regular" material, passing "regular" tests, then why would they be in special ed?

AUSTIN Many more Texas schools will flunk the federal standard for adequacy this year after state officials lost a battle to include the passing scores for thousands of special education students who take a different test.

The decision by the U.S. Department of Education means that nearly 9 percent of Texas students will be counted as automatic failures in calculating whether their schools make "Adequate Yearly Progress."

And as a result, large numbers of parents could gain the right to transfer their children to other public schools by the fall of 2005. The ability to transfer kicks in when a school fails to make the grade in two straight years.

"There's no doubt there will be a sizable increase in the number of schools that fail to meet AYP this year," Criss Cloudt, associate commissioner of the Texas Education Agency, said Thursday.

Federal education officials did not return telephone calls on Thursday.

The final Adequate Yearly Progress ratings for each school in Texas are due out in February. Preliminary results will be released in November, but schools may appeal. Superintendents and principals are being warned now that their districts and campuses will be penalized for students who take alternative achievement tests rather than the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.

About 12 percent of Texas public school students are classified as special education, and nearly 10 percent take an alternative exam for special education or limited-English-speaking children.

Over vigorous objections from state officials, the federal government has ruled that only 1 percent of those children can count on the positive side if they pass an alternative test. The rest must count as "artificial failures" in the overall passing rates for each campus and district.

To meet the federal standard this year, at least 47 percent of all students and in each student group black, Hispanic, white and low-income must have passed the reading section of the 2004 TAKS. Thirty-three percent must have passed in math.

In addition, elementary and middle schools must have had a 90 percent attendance rate and high schools must have had a graduation rate of 70 percent in the last school year.

School districts and campuses that do not make minimum progress on test scores and other measures each year are subject to sanctions specified in the federal No Child Left Behind act signed by President Bush in 2001.

The transfer option is among those sanctions. Districts that fall into that category must provide transportation to other schools.

While the overall Adequate Yearly Progress ratings are not due out for months, a Sept. 30 government deadline will force the state to notify the two-time failers by next week.

The Texas Education Agency said it plans to notify an estimated 300 schools, in 189 districts, that they have failed to achieve Adequate Yearly Progress for the second straight year and must allow their students to transfer immediately.

Officials could give no estimate Thursday for the number of schools that will fall short for the first time. But officials expect the number of failing schools to jump dramatically because of the automatic failers.

No-win complaint

Several educators said schools are being placed in a no-win situation.

If they continue to test special education students with alternative exams based on their special needs, they will count as automatic failures in the federal ratings. If they require the students to take the TAKS, most will fail because that exam measures skills they don't possess.

The exam taken by each student is determined by a committee that can include his parents, teachers and principal.

Among larger Dallas-area school districts, the percentage of special education students in 2003 was: Arlington, 9.8 percent; Dallas, 7.8 percent; Denton, 13.5 percent; Fort Worth, 9.8 percent; Plano, 10.9 percent; and Richardson, 11.5 percent.

The federal accountability system runs parallel to the four-tiered state system, which includes familiar ratings including "exemplary" and "acceptable." Those annual ratings, due out next week, are based on test scores and other criteria that are different from those used with the federal Adequate Yearly Progress standards. (State ratings have not been issued for two years because of introduction of the new TAKS exam into schools.)

"It is possible that some campuses could have a state rating of 'exemplary' and still fail to meet federal standards," said Richard Kouri of the Texas State Teachers Association. "It could be very confusing to parents."

Dr. Cloudt said the state agency was rebuffed in trying to negotiate some changes with the U.S. Department of Education.

"We've been struggling with this and trying to reach an accommodation with the Education Department, but we were unsuccessful," she said, emphasizing that state officials support the basic goals of the No Child Left Behind Act even if they have problems with some elements.

Law's requirements

The law requires states to show how they will close achievement gaps and make sure that all students including disadvantaged students reach academic proficiency in core subject areas. Progress in reaching those goals is reported through the Adequate Yearly Progress ratings.

Dr. Cloudt noted that Texas law requires school districts to use alternative tests for special education students whether it be the State-Developed Alternative Assessment or a locally developed test. Any change in that requirement would have to be approved by the Legislature, which meets again in regular session next year.

E-mail tstutz@dallasnews.com


The long and short of a decision by the U.S. Department of Education on grading Texas schools.

Question: What is required of a school to make "Adequate Yearly Progress?"

Answer: This year, at least 47 percent of all students and in each student group black, Hispanic, white and low-income must have passed the reading section of the 2004 state test. Thirty-three percent must have passed in math.

Question: Why is a federal decision to exclude most passing scores of special-education students important?

Answer: In Texas, nearly 10 percent of special-ed students are tested on a different standard. Because of the federal ruling, most of them will count as failers when considering a school's overall passing rate, and more schools will flunk as a result.

Question: What does it mean for parents?

Answer: It could mean freedom of choice for thousands more students. In schools that fail to get over the federal bar two years in a row, students must be allowed to transfer out. Districts must pay to transport them to new schools.

— Terrence Stutz
Dallas Morning News


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