Exit Tests and the Handicapped: An Unfair End to Years of Struggle

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The New York State Education Department, recognizing the urgent need to establish a means by which high-school students could be graded in the important basic areas of reading, writing, and mathematics, in 1978 developed the Regents competency tests. These tests are used to assess students' skills in these major subjects, and unless the students pass the tests, they are not issued high-school diplomas.

The competency tests are a welcome ingredient in the educational process and are certainly constructed in a manner that tests the average intellectual level of most students.

Attempting to make necessary changes to ensure fairness for all, the New York State Board of Regents subsequently established alternative testing techniques for most handicapped students. This action was based on the realization that some students who are required to take the tests may be unable to do so under normal circumstances. For example, the new policy allows learning-disabled students to use a calculator and blind students to take the test in Braille.

However, there is a major discrepancy in the provisions for alternative testing: The board has not established any modifications for students classified as mentally retarded. These students, like all others, are compelled to take the competency tests in order to obtain a diploma.

As the regulations for alternative testing state: "There are no approved alternative testing techniques for pupils whose handicapping condition is solely mental retardation." In essence--although this statement refers to mental retardation as a handicap--the board is saying it does not consider it enough of a handicap to warrant modified testing.

The confusion continues when the board states: "The pupil must have some handicapping condition which interferes with his or her ability to use standard testing techniques while taking a test. For example, a pupil with a physically or emotionally handicapping condition who functions in the mentally retarded range of ability may utilize only those alternative testing techniques which are necessary to accommodate the pupil's physical or emotional handicapping condition."

The board is saying that a child who is both physically and mentally handicapped can only use the alternative testing methods available to the physically handicapped. Thus, a child who is mentally retarded would be allowed to have the test dictated to him or her. But because he or she is mentally retarded, such a provision would not be very helpful.

Why does the board insist that mentally retarded youngsters take these tests to obtain a diploma while blatantly discriminating against them by not providing them with modifications similar to those offered to other handicapped students?

The decision by the New York Court of Appeals last October to uphold the state's practice of denying mentally handicapped youths a high-school diploma if they are unable to pass the competency test, only appears to answer that question. The court said that mentally handicapped students from the Northport-East Northport Union Free School District ''had no reasonable expectations of receiving a high-school diploma without passing competency tests."

It would seem that the board allows mentally handicapped students to take the tests to ensure that their civil rights and liberties under the equal protection clauses of the United States and New York State constitutions are not denied. But it is difficult to comprehend how anyone (least of all educators) dedicated to upholding our historical tradition of equity and justice, would "allow" these youngsters to struggle through a series of tests they are compelled to take but cannot possibly pass in order to satisfy a legalism.

The October decision by the state appeals court--for which the Board of Regents so vehemently fought--raises some additional questions about the state's ethical obligations in this matter. "The unfortunate disparity between handicapped and nonhandicapped youngsters," the court states, "is not a classification made by the state, but one attributable to the immutable mysteries of genetics, accident, disease, and student illness." While it is true that the state is not responsible for a child's handicap, it certainly must answer for the child's education.

Recognizing the disparity that the courts failed to acknowledge, members of the New York State legislature introduced a bill earlier this year that would allow schools to award diplomas to handicapped students who have successfully completed the learning goals prescribed by their individual education programs. This is one possible approach to eliminating that disparity--but it is not the right approach. Instead, the board must, in order to ensure equity for all, establish special competency tests for mentally retarded students.

Creating separate tests for these students is not an unrealistic goal. The board has demonstrated its ability to develop tests by creating the Regents exam and the state achievement and competency tests. It has also shown, through the array of questions selected for different ranges of students, the ability to gear a test to the limited abilities of the mentally handicapped.

The format for these special competency tests should be the same as the current reading, writing, and mathematics competency tests, but the questions should be geared to fairly match the capabilities of mentally handicapped students. Questions for the test should come from various educational sources, including special-education teachers throughout the state, who could provide hundreds of questions emerging from the individualized education programs of their students. The board would be in charge of final selection of the questions and creation of the tests.

The tests would be taken at the same time and graded in the same manner as all competency tests, and if the mentally handicapped students pass the tests, they would receive a high-school diploma. If not, they would receive what all other students who don't pass receive--a transcript of their grades. There would be no special testing modifications for this test, except for those techniques already in place for students with other handicaps.

The concept of such an examination should not be incomprehensible to those involved in shaping the minds and hearts of our young people. To require these handicapped youngsters to take an unfair, inappropriate test that they have virtually no chance of passing after they have diligently completed four years of high school is not only cruel but contrary to our educational philosophy of compassion and justice.

Vol. 03, Issue 29, Page 18

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