Original URL:  http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A30561-2003Oct15.html

Low Test Scores Blamed on Conflicting U.S. Laws
Schools Cite Penalty For Helping Students
Washington Post
Thursday, October 16, 2003; Page GZ03
By Jay Mathews
Staff Writer

Eight Montgomery County elementary schools have failed to make enough annual progress under the federal education law because of what county officials say is a fluke -- they are being penalized for obeying other federal laws that require help on tests for students with disabilities or limited English skills.

The county Board of Education voted unanimously Monday to ask that the scores be retabulated so the schools will not suffer for following the rules, but state and federal officials say the problem is unlikely to be solved soon.

Superintendent Jerry D. Weast said the schools could have avoided putting themselves at risk of new expenses under the education law by not reading to the students some of the questions on the third-grade reading section of the Maryland School Assessment test in March. But that would have violated agreements made with parents and the federal government to accommodate students who could not show what they had learned without such help.

Weast identified seven elementary schools affected by the clash of regulations: Oak View, Resnik, Rock Creek Valley, Viers Mill, Weller Road, Wheaton Woods and Meadow Hall. State education officials say that an eighth county elementary school is similarly affected, but that it will take more time to identify it.

The schools were judged to have failed to make "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) under the No Child Left Behind law, putting them at risk of having to pay tutors, overhaul staffs or even face state takeover if they continue to miss federal achievement targets in the next few years.

The private company scoring the tests threw out the results when students had questions read to them that asked them to recognize individual words and explain their meaning. The entire reading test, not just the section in dispute, was given the lowest possible grade, which pushed each school's average below the necessary mark.

"By law, the students had to participate" in the tests, the county school system said in a statement. "By law, we provided the students with required accommodations. Now the scores are rendered meaningless for the students and detrimental for the school system."

"If these students are not getting a score, then I wonder why they are taking this test," said Julia Lawrence, an English for Speakers of Other Languages teacher at Wheaton Woods Elementary in Rockville. "If it were my child -- after going through the grueling experience" of sitting through a four-day test that was hard to understand -- "I would be very angry," she said.

Weast has delayed mailing individual scores to parents. He said he was concerned that some of the students with disabilities or limited English scores might be punished by their parents for getting low grades on the test because of the complicated clash of federal regulations.

The county said 832 third-graders, 461 with disabilities and 371 with limited English, were affected by the invalidation of scores.

A county statement said one 8-year-old from Peru had been learning English at Wheaton Woods for a year and a half before he took the test, but was extremely shy and reluctant to practice the new language. The state test was read to him, and he received the lowest possible reading score, even though he has been identified as gifted and talented in mathematics, with scores two years ahead of his age group.

Weast appealed Monday on behalf of three of the schools, Weller Road, Wheaton Woods and Viers Mill, which are covered under a federal aid program that may help overturn the results.

2003 The Washington Post Company