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NCLB Outrages

Principals: Mandates Hurt Special-Education Students

This is so outrageous, it's hard not to sputter. Why are children assigned to special-education classes? If they were achieving at grade level, would they still qualify for special ed?

Local principals concerned about pushing special-education students too hard to meet federal No Child Left Behind mandates were rebuffed yesterday by a senior federal education official.

Raymond Simon, assistant U.S. education secretary, said that "there's no movement to change" the current regulations that hold all but 1 percent of students to challenging assessments and grade-level expectations.

"We had lost confidence in our own kids," said Simon, a former Arkansas education official. "All kids can be at grade level - should be at grade level - in reading and math."

But some of the 50 principals who attended the forum at Arcadia College in Glenside told Simon that the state math and reading tests known as the PSSAs overwhelm special-education students.

"It is heartbreaking to watch these students try to take the tests," said Iris Parker, principal at Cedarbrook Middle School in Cheltenham. "We agree that children should be as close to grade level as possible, but sometimes that is not possible."

Simon said that in many cases, "an expectation gap" exists when teachers have low expectations or lack the training to improve results for students with special needs.

But he agreed there are concerns about "gap kids" - special-education students who have more skills than the least able but are still not performing at grade level.

Gap kids are now getting the attention of policy makers in Washington, according to a spokesman for the Arc US, an advocacy group for children with mental retardation.

No one knows how many students fall into the category.

Philadelphia has identified 7 percent of its students as needing special services; some suburban districts put the proportion as high as 22 percent. Most districts say 11 to 15 percent of their students need special help.

The principals expressed other concerns to Simon, such as whether the focus on testing was taking over the curriculum and whether the popular Blue Ribbon Schools program had lost value.

"We have to make sure our students have the whole elementary experience, with art and all the specials," said Mia Kim, principal of Cheltenham Elementary School.

Joanna Roger, principal of Fitzwater Elementary School in Upper Dublin, said the Blue Ribbon program had been "watered down" because the U.S. Department of Education now awards the prized title to schools that show improved test results.

Under former guidelines, school leaders "learned so much" about strengths and weaknesses in curriculum and other areas because schools were required to carry out self-studies that included input from teachers and parents, she said.

Simon acknowledged "the criteria have shifted" and said he would convey those concerns to other Education Department officials.

Contact staff writer Connie Langland at 610-313-8134 or clangland@phillynews.com.

— Connie Langland
Philadelphia Inquirer


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