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New York State has the nation's highest percentage of special-education students in separate schools or classrooms, according to a new report by an advocacy group.

In its report, Advocates for Children, a New York City-based group that works on behalf of disabled children and their parents, says that only 43.4 percent of disabled students in the state are taught in regular classrooms or in resource rooms, in which they are placed for a small portion of the school day. By comparison, the report said, the median percentage of disabled students served in such settings in the 49 other states is 68.6 percent.

In New York City, where an unusually large percentage of students are in special education, 65 percent of disabled students are taught in separate settings, according to the report.

Moreover, it says, a disproportionately high percentage of those students are members of minority groups. During the 1989-90 school year, 80 percent of the special-education students being served in self-contained classes and special programs were of African-American or Hispanic backgrounds, the report says.

The group said its findings point up the need for "a radical change in the [state's] current special-education system.''

Residents of five small school districts in northeastern North Dakota voted this month to merge the systems into one 950-square-mile district, effective next July.

The district, which has not yet been named, will be the state's second largest in land area and is expected to enroll 700 students in grades K-12 who are currently students in the Aneta, McVille, Michigan, Tolna, and Unity of Petersburg school districts.

The consolidation plan, which originally set out to combine seven districts, was rejected Nov. 10 by the citizens of the Crary and Lakota school districts, by 81 percent and 84 percent of the voters, respectively.

As a result, the two districts will lose the $165-per-student annual incentive offered by the state to encourage consolidation, as well as the right to participate in fine-arts, foreign-language, and counseling programs shared by the seven districts--known as the Greater Nelson County Consortium, said Gene Kotaska, the consortium's coordinator.

Initially, at least, officials do not expect to close any schools.

The new district will have one superintendent and one school board that will draw one member from each of the defunct districts. Of the current five superintendents, one will retire, and the other four will probably become principals, Mr. Kotaska said.

The main advantage of the consolidation is the financial stability and the ability to cope with declining enrollments, Mr. Kotaska said.

Baseline scores on performance-based assessments of Kentucky students indicate that only 10 percent of those who took the examinations last spring are proficient in the areas of social studies, mathematics, and science.

The tests, which consisted of tasks designed to simulate practical problems, were administered to students in grades 4, 8, and 12 as part of revamped state assessment system.

Students could achieve one of four scores in each content area: novice, apprentice, proficient, or distinguished.

The test results, released last month, indicate that 10 percent or fewer of the students taking the exams achieved a score of "proficient'' in any of the test categories.

The sole exception was in 8th-grade math, in which 10 percent were rated "proficient'' and 3 percent were deemed "distinguished.''

By the same token, 64 percent of the 8th graders achieved a "novice'' score on the math test, the largest single group to score at that level.

The Louisiana attorney general's office has ruled that a $1.77 billion state fund for local public schools can be used to pay for pre-kindergarten programs in public schools.

Assistant Attorney General Beth Conrad said this month that funds from the Minimum Foundation Program--which go to pay for such items as teachers' salaries, transportation costs, books and supplies, and special-education programs--may also be used for the pre-K programs.

Ms. Conrad said in her opinion that, even though the state program does not primarily address the issue of pre-kindergarten education, the law gives local school boards the authority to decide how to use the money.

Fourteen 14 of the state's 66 local school systems have already been using money from the fund for preschool programs. If every district did so, state school officials said, the funding formula would require millions more in state appropriations to the districts.

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