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Special-Ed. Decision Reversed

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Springfield, Ill--Special-education students, denied high-school diplomas for failing the state's "minimal-competency" tests, were deprived of their constitutionally protected rights and must be awarded diplomas, a federal court of appeals has ruled.

But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, reversing a 1982 decision of a federal district judge, upheld the right of the Peoria School District to make passage of a minimal-competency test (mct), a graduation requirement for all students in the future, including those enrolled in special-education programs.

The case--Brookhart v. Illinois School Board of Education--was a victory for the 11 special-education students who were denied diplomas by the Peoria district in June 1980.

That year, the Peoria Board of Education began implementing a policy, adopted in 1978, that requires all students to pass the test to graduate. Students must score at least 70 percent on each of the three parts of the examination, which tests language arts, reading, and mathematics.

Because the special-education students--all of whom suffered from learning disabilities or other handicaps--failed at least one part of the test, they were given "certificates of program completion" in lieu of their diplomas.

Parents of the students appealed to the state board of education and were upheld in an administrative ruling by Donald G. Gill, the state superintendent, who concluded that the district violated the students' due-process rights by failing to give them "adequate timely notice" that the exit examina-tion would be a prerequisite for receiving diplomas.

Last March, however, Mr. Gill's ruling was overturned by U.S. District Judge Robert D. Morgan.

The appellate panel in turn reversed Judge Morgan, but on narrow grounds. The decision leaves intact the Peoria policy of requiring all students to pass minimal-competency tests to receive diplomas.

"The school district's desire to ensure the value of its diploma by requiring graduating students to attain minimal skills is admirable, and the courts will interfere with educational-policy decisions only when necessary to protect individual statutory or constitutional rights," the court said.

It then rejected most of the plaintiffs' arguments, including contentions that the Peoria policy violated the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, that it constituted unlawful discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and that it ignored federal regulations requiring tests to be validated separately for handicapped students.

The court did agree with Mr. Gill that federal law requires "administrative modifications to minimize the effects of plaintiffs' handicaps on any future examinations."

But it concluded that the test requirement did not, as claimed by the students, violate the federal Education For All Handicapped Children Act by denying a "free appropriate public education."

Citing a U.S. Supreme Court decision in Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley last June, the appellate court said federal law "does not require 'specific results, but rather only mandates access to specialized and individualized educational services for handicapped children. Denial of diplomas to handicapped children who have been receiving the special education and related services required by the act, but are unable to achieve the educational level necessary to pass the mct, is not a denial of a 'free and appropriate education."'

Similarly, the court reasoned that "plaintiffs in this case have no grounds on which to argue that the contents of the mct are discriminatory solely because handicapped students who are incapable of attaining a level of minimal competency will fail the test.

"A student who is unable to learn because of his handicap is surely not an individual who is qualified in spite of his handicap," the court said.

The students were more successful on their due-process claim.

Denial of Diploma

In deciding whether a high-school diploma was a "protective liberty or property interest," the court said denial of a diploma clearly affects a student's reputation and attaches a stigma that "will have potentially disasterous effects for future employment or educational opportunities."

The court said the students had between a year and 18 months to be exposed to the material on the mct before their scheduled graduation. But it also pointed out that "individual petitioners lacked exposure to as much as 90 percent of the material tested."

The appellate panel rejected Judge Morgan's conclusion that "the only possible reason" for the lack of exposure was that the students were incapable of learning the material and therefore the amount of time provided the students for preparation was irrelevant.

"First," the court said,"several plaintiffs passed various parts of the mct, thus indicating that the problem is not uniformly a lack of innate mental capacity."

Moreover, it added, the record of the cases suggested that the plaintiffs' instructional programs were not developed to meet a goal of passing the mct but were instead geared to individual educational needs.

"In an educational system that assumes special-education students learn at a slower rate than regular-division students, a year and a half at most to prepare for the mct is insufficient," the court held.

Proper Notice

On the issue of what would constitute proper notice, the court said the school district can, "first, ensure that handicapped students are sufficiently exposed to most of the material that appears on the mct, or second, they can produce evidence of a reasoned and well-informed decision by the parents and teachers involved that a particular high-school student will be better off concentrating on educational objectives than preparation for the mct"

Regarding a remedy, the court said it found appealing the school district's suggestions that the students should be denied diplomas but given more time to participate in remedial courses and additional opportunities to take the mct.

The court noted that the Peoria district offers remedial courses for reviewing the mct material and advised "future handicapped students to bypass the courts and enroll in those courses when necessary."

But the judges agreed with the plaintiffs that "in this particular case ... it is unrealistic to assume that 11 of these plaintiffs would be able to return to school without undue hardship.

"Consequently, the school district may not require those plaintiffs to pass the mct as a prerequisite for a diploma."

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