More N.Y. Special Education Students Passing State Tests
New York education officials pointed last week to the results for special education students on new state tests as early evidence that higher standards are pushing almost all students—including those with disabilities—to higher levels of achievement.
"Many people said special education students could not reach higher standards," Commissioner of Education Richard P. Mills said in releasing the state's annual report on special education. "But we are finding more and more of them are succeeding."
New York state's approach reflects a 1997 federal law that mandates the participation of special education students in statewide assessments, under the assumption that such testing improves the students' learning opportunities. But the state has gone further than many others by compelling special education students—except for a small number with severe handicaps—to take new, more challenging tests, known as regents' exams, that are required for high school graduation.
In the 1998-99 school year, with high school juniors required to take the English regents' exam before the end of senior year, 7,480 special education students passed the exam out of the 12,516 who took it. Two years earlier, by comparison, only 4,397 had even attempted the test, according to the report.
"It sticks right out that a substantially larger number of students are passing than even took the exams in 1996-97," said Lawrence C. Gloeckler, the deputy state commissioner who oversees special education. "Those 3,000 students [who passed the test last year] would not even have had the opportunity three years ago, and I think that's a dramatic shift in terms of opportunity."
Slowdown in Placements
Between 1996-97 and 1998-99, the passing rate for special education students on the English regents' exam climbed from 21 percent to 35 percent. The passing rate last year among students without disabilities was 86 percent, according to education department figures.
Though special education students must take the regents' exams, they do not have to pass them to get a high school diploma—at least for now. In what education officials refer to as a "safety net" arrangement that is guaranteed through 2003, special education students who do not pass may take the same subject exam in the battery of easier tests now being phased out and receive a "local" rather than a regents' diploma. By 2004, all regular education students will be required to pass the tougher exams in five subjects.
State officials say that the data being collected now will help them decide whether to make passing the regents' exams mandatory for most special education students as well.
The increased number of special education students taking the regents' exams is particularly noteworthy when coupled with a slowdown in the rate at which students are placed in special education, the officials say. The rate of growth in the number of students classified as needing special education was six-tenths of a percentage point from 1993 to 1994, but only two-tenths of a percentage point from 1997 to 1999, when just under 12 percent of public students statewide were classified as needing special education.
"Some people feared that if you raised the standards, you would see an increase in the classification rates" because more students would appear unable to cope in general education classes, Mr. Gloeckler said. Instead, he said, more students are getting help earlier, more are being integrated into regular classrooms, and the special education curriculum is being better matched to state standards.
But in other areas, state officials say, disturbing trends remain. Black and Hispanic students are still considerably more likely to be referred to special education than their white peers, the report points out. They are also more likely to spend more time in separate classes or in schools for children with disabilities.
Advocates for children receiving special education said that while they generally agreed with the move to higher standards for all students, they were concerned about the support students would get to meet the higher standards and the procedures that would be used to test them.
"The legislature has not risen to the level of support that is needed," said Jill Chaifetz, the executive director of Advocates for Children of New York, a legal-advocacy group based in New York City. Many more children need a better-quality education to pass the tests, she said.
Vol. 19, Issue 31, Page 33