Original URL: http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/news/articles/1202specialed02.html

Special-ed students skew standardized test results
Associated Press
Dec. 2, 2003 12:00 AM

Julia Silverman

EAGLE POINT, Ore. - The kids in Michelle Harper's special-education class have their own small victories every day: a temper tantrum stifled, two words rhymed.

When it comes time to take the standardized tests that the federal government uses to measure public schools, many of Harper's students at White Mountain Middle School merely pick answers at random, not realizing the potentially severe consequences for their school.

Across the country this year, thousands of schools were deemed "failing" because of the test performance of special-ed students.

The results have provoked feelings of fury, helplessness and amusement in teachers like Harper, who say that because of some of their students' disabilities, there is no realistic way to ever meet the expectations of a new federal law backed by the Bush administration that requires that 99 percent of all children be performing at or above grade level by 2014.

If schools fail to meet those targets, they risk being taken over by the state or by private companies; teachers can lose their jobs.

"These children are going to plateau at a certain level, that is the nature of a disability," said Harper, who teaches students with autism, learning disabilities, mental retardation, Tourette's syndrome, vision and hearing deficiencies and brain injuries. "These kids are not going to grow out of it, not going to grow up and be OK."

Special education has been a battleground for years. Parents of special-ed students fought long and hard for their children to be included in mainstream classrooms and for the money to provide them with extra help.

Now the new law, dubbed No Child Left Behind, has focused even more attention on special education because of the consequences for entire schools.

The law mandates that schools bring all groups of students up to grade level on standardized reading and math tests, including special-ed students and those who do not speak English. If even one of those groups fails to meet progress targets for two years in a row, an entire school can be listed as failing and face an escalating list of sanctions.

In South Carolina, more than three-fourths of schools were listed as failing. Sandra Lindsay, the state's deputy education secretary, said special education was the most common denominator.

In Oregon, 202 schools reported that their special-education students had failed to make the desired progress in reading; 181 said that was true for math.

The government is defending the special-education portion of the law, although officials said some changes are in the works that would give more leeway to the most seriously disabled children.

However, the Education Department does not want to let all special-education students and their teachers off the hook, said Ronald Tomalis, acting assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education. For more seriously disabled children, he said, a proposed change to the law would let 1 percent of all children in a district skip the grade-level exams and instead take a test tailored to their abilities.