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Students With Disabilities Are Overlooked In Push To Measure Skills

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In the nationwide push to measure the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that young people gain from school, students with disabilities are being overlooked, according to a new study.

The study was conducted by researchers at the National Center on Educational Outcomes at the University of Minnesota, who surveyed every state and territory last year about the extent to which data are available on achievement levels and educational outcomes for disabled students.

The survey was conducted with St. Cloud State University and the National Association of State Directors of Special Education.

The researchers found that many state-level special educators, long used to documenting the process of education rather than its results, could provide only limited information on pupils with disabilities.

In practice, the researchers determined, most achievement data on disabled students were collected at the state level through general educational assessments. But few states surveyed could separate out information on disabled students.

Moreover, the survey showed, states varied widely in the extent to which they included those students in the assessments in the first place.

"I think we have a real problem if we can't include all students in the education system, and now we can't,'' said Martha Thurlow, assistant director of the federally funded center.

"If, for example, you're doing an adult-literacy survey and you exclude people who can't read,'' Ms. Thurlow continued, "you're going to get a very different picture of the outcome than if you did a more careful and inclusive survey.''

Unnecessary Exclusion Seen

Disabled students take part in state achievement tests in 49 states and in 6 territories, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the District of Columbia, according to the study.

Only 28 of those states and 5 territories, however, could provide any specific information on disabled students' scores.

And, in those states that included disabled pupils, the percentages of disabled students who took the tests varied widely, from 2 percent in Michigan to 104 percent in Delaware. The figure for Delaware reflects changes over the course of the school year in the number of disabled students enrolled.

Despite the variability across states, the study indicates, most states have formal guidelines on including disabled pupils in assessments. Students were often included, for example, if they were in regular classes for the subjects being tested, usually mathematics and reading. Reading proficiency or disability category was also a frequent guide.

"Some of these policies also leave open possibilities for local teachers or administrators who want to make sure the school looks good to not include disabled students in ungraded classes on the official roster'' from which students are drawn for assessments, Ms. Thurlow said.

She said parents may also argue the tests are stressful for the children.

"The extent to which exclusion is occurring seems to be much greater than it needs to be,'' she said.

The survey also found that 42 states allow educators to make special accommodations on the tests for disabled students.

Ms. Thurlow said researchers at the center found similarly varying rates of inclusion on national educational assessments--a situation that raises questions about the reliability of assessments that compare student achievement across states. The center will release a second study on that subject later this year.

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