New expectations

Sunday, January 4, 2004

Seventeen-year-old Brent Bohn doesn't know what he had for breakfast yesterday, but he knows the exact date his family last ate at Cracker Barrel.

He loves watching high school football, and his parents celebrated this year when, for the very first time, he chose to sit next to other students at a game instead of hovering at his father's side.

Randy and Shelly Bohn know their autistic son won't go to college after he graduates from Scott City High School next year. The Kelso, Mo., couple know Brent will never do well on the annual Missouri Assessment Program tests or any other academic assessment. The most they hope is that school will help develop their son's social skills.

But the federal government has much higher expectations for Brent and other special education students. Under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, students with individual education plans, or IEPs, are held to the same standards as nondisabled students on annual state tests.

They're included in NCLB's requirement that 100 percent of all students score proficient on state assessments by 2014. And if they don't score as well on the assessments as other students, school districts can be penalized.

Of all the sweeping reforms included in the 1,200-page reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, special education testing and standards have attracted the most controversy among educators, both locally and nationally.

"We're not leaving those students behind, but what wasn't taken into account with this law is that not everybody can be brought along at the same pace," said Dr. Rita Fisher, assistant superintendent in the Jackson School District.

Softer standard

Nearly two years after the original legislation was signed by President Bush, the U.S. Department of Education approved in December a softer standard for the most severely disabled students in response to widespread controversy over special education testing.

Federal education officials said they tried to find balance without eroding accountability for all students, the main premise behind NCLB.

"Schools around the country will not be identified by their states as 'needing improvement' if their students with the most significant disabilities are unable to take the same tests as their peers," Education Secretary Rod Paige has said.

Under the new rule, the most severely cognitively disabled students can take an alternative test designed just for their abilities, and the scores will count toward a school's adequate yearly progress, commonly known as AYP.

It's a small step in the right direction, according to local school officials such as Fisher and others involved in special education.

Brent Bohn does not fall into that category and therefore will take the same MAP math test as his peers this April.

"For Brent, it's almost a waste of time," said Randy Bohn. "We realize the school has to give this test, but whatever time the MAP takes up takes away from Brent's goals. His goals are social, not academic."

The recent change to NCLB, which applies to no more than 1 percent of students in a given grade within a school district, will do little to take pressure off teachers such as Debbie Lusk, who works with special education students at Central High School in Cape Girardeau.

"By the time they get to high school, these students are so far behind," Lusk said. "They may be reading at a third-grade level. You can make it in the world reading at a third-grade level, but you can't pass a high school MAP test."

There are an estimated 600 special education students in the Jackson School District, and around 700 in Cape Girardeau. Because the NCLB standards change applies to no more than 10 percent of all special education students, the most it would exempt from regular MAP testing is 60 students in Jackson and 70 in Cape Girardeau.

What's fair

The fairness of NCLB's standards for those students who aren't eligible for the alternative testing, said Lusk, depends on each child's disability.

"Some students are quite capable of meeting those goals," Lusk said. "Unfortunately, the expectations are simply too high for other students."

Some of Lusk's students burst into tears at the thought of taking a MAP test. Others refuse to come to school on the days MAP is administered.

Because all students are required to take the state test, those who don't take it or can't complete it count against a school's annual AYP target.

"We're trying to work on walking skills and learning to tie our shoes in my class," Lusk said. "Even the above-average students struggle with the MAP, so you know special education students are."

Local special education parents also worry that being held to the same standards as other students will be frustrating for special needs children.

"It sounds good to have high expectations so that children will try harder, but in some cases, these kids are already functioning at the level they're capable of," said Jackson resident Debby Rushin, whose son, Ben, has pervasive developmental disorder, a form of autism.

"Any legislation that draws attention to special education children and helps them is a good thing," Rushin said. "I don't have a problem with my son being held to the same standards as other children, as long as he's not penalized."

Under NCLB, it is schools, not individual students, that face consequences for not performing up to standards.

In 2003, the first year schools were required to make AYP under the new legislation, all special education students had to take the same state test as other students or their scores would count against a school's AYP no matter how well they did on an alternate test.

Under the U.S. Department of Education's new rule, special education students who fall outside the 1 percent severely disabled group still have the option of taking an alternative test, but it will receive a score of "level not determined," which counts against adequate yearly progress.

Special education advocates such as James Wendorf with the National Center for Learning Disabilities, based in New York City, say disabled students should be included in high standards.

"The vast majority of students with disabilities must be included," Wendorf told the Associated Press. "But we also must make sure that the schools are providing the kind of instruction and support so that all kids can reach that proficient level. It's doable."

To be held accountable as a subgroup under NCLB, there must be 30 children that fall into that category within the grade taking a particular test. In the Cape Girardeau, Jackson and Scott City school districts only, five schools had enough special education students to form a subgroup.

Of those five schools, all but one subgroup of special education students failed to make AYP in either math or communication arts. Because of that, the schools as a whole did not make AYP and were placed on the state's "needs improvement" list.

If those schools don't make AYP on the spring 2004 MAP tests, they could be required to allow students to transfer to a better performing school next fall, according the NCLB guidelines.

The penalties for failing to make AYP grow gradually more severe with each year a district or school doesn't meet the target, which makes the special education testing issue even more significant for educators.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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