Suit Says Ore. Test Unfair to Learning-Disabled
A group of Oregon parents and students claims in a federal lawsuit filed last week that a new state test discriminates against students with learning disabilities.
The suit, filed Feb. 22 in the U.S. District Court in Portland, contends that in administering the Certificate of Initial Mastery test to 10th graders, state education officials did not make the types of accommodations for learning-disabled students that are required by federal laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The suit also claims that the test's heavy emphasis on spelling and punctuation--skills that can be particularly difficult for students with conditions such as dyslexia to master--makes the test itself discriminatory.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs believe this to be the first such action against a state test on behalf of learning-disabled students.
The test was given to students throughout the state for the first time last month.
With a writing section in which spelling and punctuation count for as much as 40 percent of the writing grade, the test is an "education disaster" for students with learning disabilities, argued Sid Wolinsky, the director of litigation for the Oakland, Calif.-based Disability Rights Advocates, the group representing the plaintiffs.
"The state has developed a test which tests these students on their disabilities rather than their abilities," he said. "It's a little like ... testing deaf children on music."
State education officials counter that by giving test-takers unlimited time and allowing them to use a spelling dictionary, they have made appropriate concessions without jeopardizing the validity of the exam.
"We're trying to be as inclusive as possible, but we need to make sure kids are meeting higher standards," said Larry Austin, a spokesman for the state education department. "Spelling is important. You don't see a swimmer get a two-second head start in a meet."
The plaintiffs say a spelling dictionary--a tool that allows students to look up words they think they may have misspelled but that doesn't automatically catch spelling errors--would not help dyslexic students who are neurologically unable to discern whether words are spelled correctly.
Allowing the use of a computerized spell-checker is an accommodation to learning-disabled students that is "absolutely routine" in other states, Mr. Wolinsky said.
The consequences of failing the Certificate of Initial Mastery, or CIM, remain unclear.
Lawyers representing the group of at least 10 students and parents who filed the suit say that school districts could require students to pass the exam if they want to enroll in Advanced Placement courses, and that failing the test eventually could prevent students from attending Oregon's state colleges and universities.
But Mr. Austin said the CIM is not a "barrier" test. Passing the test would be a "value-added certificate," he said. "If you're an admissions officer, and you see the CIM, it will mean something."
Steve Johnson, the state's associate superintendent of special education, said the tests are intended only to let students, families, and districts know students' progress in meeting state standards.
Vol. 18, Issue 25, Page 6Published in Print: March 3, 1999, as Suit Says Ore. Test Unfair to Learning-Disabled