Keeping the Doors Wide Open

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It’s all but impossible for an accountability system to say how well every student in every school is faring.

In practice, experts say, many children with disabilities and those with limited English skills sit out state tests or stay at home on testing days--despite federal laws requiring their inclusion in large-scale assessments. The omissions have been a problem for years, and the problem is growing worse as schools feel increased pressure to win rewards or avoid sanctions based on test scores.

Exempting disabled and limited-English-proficient students from assessments--and thereby from accountability systems--makes it difficult to gauge whether the billions of dollars spent each year on special education and language programs are well spent.

"Educators, parents, and policymakers don't have the information needed to determine whether [those] students are meeting academic standards," says Martha L. Thurlow, the associate director of the National Center on Educational Outcomes, or NCEO, at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. "It's critical that all students be included when judgments are being made" based on test scores.

But some relatively new federal mandates are slowly prompting change. Revisions in 1997 to the main federal special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and the 1994 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act are closing the loopholes that have kept special-needs students away from their desks at test time. "States are making big strides in alleviating the problem," Thurlow says.

Beginning this school year, states are required under the special education law to incorporate as many of their disabled students as possible into the regular curriculum. That includes state tests. States must create and offer alternative assessments for severely disabled students--those who are unable even with special accommodations to participate in the regular tests--by July 2000.

The changes are intended to ensure that special education services are a supplement to, not a substitute for, the regular curriculum, says John Corpolongo, the president of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, located in Alexandria, Va.

"Education as a whole needs to be accountable for the results of all students," adds Corpolongo, who is the assistant state superintendent for special education in Oklahoma. The IDEA requirement will ensure that "special education is an issue on the table in state legislatures and state board meetings," he says.

Virginia D. Roach, the deputy executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education, says a critical element in the changes is accountability. "The whole idea of this law is to see if special education is doing its job and to help kids overcome barriers and gain access to the general education curriculum."

Along those same lines, a provision in the ESEA requires states to include in general assessments, “to the extent practicable and in the language and form most likely to yield accurate and reliable information,” those students who are still learning the English language. The law requires states to make every effort to test students in their native languages, where appropriate, and devise methods to compare their scores with those of the general student population.

Joan Herman, the associate director of the Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing at the University of California, Los Angeles, says the law has had a big impact on how schools look at students with limited English proficiency.

"In the past, LEP kids tended not to be tested, and thus their progress was invisible to the public and the accountability system," she says.

No good national figures are available on how many of the nation's disabled or LEP students have been excluded from state testing and accountability systems over the years. According to a recent survey by the National Center on Educational Outcomes, participation of such students varies widely from state to state, with most decisions being made at the local level. Only 32 states, according to the center, have been keeping track of such data.

What is known, though, is why those students have been left out. The most common reason is the assumption that disabled and non-English-speaking students will drive down aggregate test scores for schools and districts. That's a particular concern in states with high stakes attached to test scores.

"There are lots of ways to circumvent the rules," says Roach of the National Association of State Boards of Education. And without clear guidelines on the whys and how-tos of assessing LEP and disabled students, she adds, "schools continue to hide students in special and alternative programs."

Not all exclusions, of course, are attributable to schools' concerns about their overall test scores. In the case of children with disabilities, some parents and teachers worry that the tests will simply be too difficult and intense and might harm the students' self-confidence. Questions also arise about what, if any, accommodations should be extended to such test-takers: for example, changes in the presentation of a test, the time given students to answer questions, or the setting where they'll sit for the exams.

But special education programs in many school systems often include students with behavior problems or only slight learning difficulties. That means that in some cases, a high proportion of students identified as disabled--the NCEO estimates 85 percent of such students--are able to take state assessments under normal testing conditions or with little special accommodation. The more severely disabled students--fewer than 15 percent of disabled students, according to the NCEO--may need alternative assessments.

Kentucky, a state with one of the most comprehensive systems of standards and assessments in the nation, has been including nearly all students in its assessment and accountability program since testing began in 1992. Fewer than 1 percent of students take an alternative test.

The state integrates results from the alternative tests given to severely disabled students with those from regular testing circumstances.

"All students can learn at high levels, including disabled students," says Wilmer S. Cody, the state education commissioner. "It's an issue of public policy," he adds, "to include all students in our testing and accountability system."

Elsewhere, however, making sure that all students participate in accountability and assessment programs is proving both costly and complicated.

"It's a tremendous new task for states to work on," Corpolongo says--a task, he adds, that will require a good deal of money, technical expertise, and training. "There are a lot of unanswered questions right now."

The debate over how best to assess non-native English-speakers is even more complex. Currently, according to a Council of Chief State School Officers survey, nine states do not allow exemptions of limited-English-proficient students from state assessments. States allowing exemptions base them on the students' level of English skill, usually gauged by exam, the amount of time a student has been in the United States, and the amount of time a student has been learning English in school.

States that are working on assessments in other languages are also running into problems. The direct translation of tests is difficult and sometimes virtually impossible. Also posing problems are differing dialects and the varying proficiency of students in their native languages. The problem is further complicated by the high cost of preparing and scoring the assessments and figuring out a way to include them in the state's accountability system.

All of which, experts say, has stymied efforts to broaden the inclusion of students with a limited command of English. “Few states have been willing to get involved in meaningful assessments” of English-language learners, says Roger L. Rice, a lawyer with Multicultural Education, Training, and Advocacy Inc., a national bilingual education advocacy group in Somerville, Mass. "I’d like to see kids tested, but meaningfully tested."

Though the issue is so complex that "nobody knows quite what to do," Rice says, he believes the obstacles must be overcome.

In 1997, California passed a law requiring the testing in English of all public school students in grades 2 to 11. Opponents argued that the law would yield unreliable results for the state's 1.3 million limited-English-proficient students, and the San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley school districts went to court to challenge the English-only test. The suits charged that the test violated students' civil rights and was not in compliance with the Federal Equal Educational Opportunities Act.

In late July, a judge ruled that the state's nearly 1,000 school districts may not use the test scores of limited-English-proficient students who have attended a state public school for less than 30 months to make academic decisions, may not put those students' individual test scores in their student files, and may not publicize, report, or send to parents the scores of those students.

"This wasn't about exempting LEP kids. They should all be included in the state testing system," says Emily Den, a lawyer for the San Francisco Unified School District. "But testing students in a language they don't understand makes no sense."

Proponents of the English-only test contended that it would provide a good baseline for measuring students' progress in English. That emphasis on learning English also was the motivation for Proposition 227, the measure approved by state voters last June that sought to virtually end bilingual education in California's public schools. Incoming Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, will likely address the testing and bilingual education issues during a special legislative session on education this month.

In the end, researchers say, a good argument can be made for testing students in their native language and testing English-language learners in English.

"There are scholars on both sides" of the testing debate, says Susan Muscavage, a doctoral student at Teachers College, Columbia University, and a former 2nd grade bilingual education teacher in Los Angeles. The issue, she says, comes down to whether the primary goal of education is teaching subjects such as reading, mathematics, and science, or teaching students to speak English fluently. "I think these goals need to be bound together," Muscavage says, "but it's really very complicated."

And it could be years, experts say, before policymakers determine how best to include English-language learners in assessment and accountability systems.

"My guess is that the states will be years working out tests just in Spanish, let alone the other predominant Asian languages they need to test in," says Bruce Hunter, the director of government relations for the American Association of School Administrators.

As for students with disabilities, he said, "there's a growing body of knowledge about how to adjust tests, but it's incomplete."

In the end, Hunter adds, he hopes that tests will never serve as the sole determinant for disabled students or those with limited English proficiency. "Deciding kids' lives or sorting them based on a single test score is fraught with problems," he says, "and in terms of education policy, is not the best policy."

Vol. 18, Issue 17, Page 12-13

Published in Print: January 11, 1999, as Keeping the Doors Wide Open
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