States, Districts Unsure How To Test Students With Disabilities

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Charlotte, N.C.

Assessing the progress of students with disabilities is becoming a huge challenge for states and districts, and many questions have yet to be answered, a leading researcher told members of the Council for Exceptional Children meeting here.

The amended Individuals with Disabilities Education Act passed in 1997 requires states and districts either to include those students in general assessments or create alternative tests, and then report the results, the same as for other students. But the federal law and ensuing regulations offer little guidance on how to do so, said James E. Ysseldyke, the director of the National Center on Educational Outcomes at the University of Minnesota.

James E. Ysseldyke

In addition, states must have alternative assessments in place by July 1 of next year for students who are unable to take the general assessments with or without special accommodations. While the number of students who need alternative assessments is likely to be small--from 5 percent to 20 percent of students with disabilities--many states are unsure how to create such tests and which students need them, Mr. Ysseldyke told the CEC members during their annual meeting here.

It's also still unclear how the law applies to district tests, he added.

Compounding the uncertainty is the growing number of states that require or are considering mandatory tests for graduation. Mr. Ysseldyke predicts that this accountability movement is "on a huge collision course" with requirements under the IDEA, and may result in fewer regular diplomas for students with disabilities.

"We want them in for accountability purposes, but we don't want them taking a test for a diploma," he said. "Our first question should be, 'Why have these kids not had the opportunity to learn what we're testing?' "

More than 6,500 special educators, administrators, and parents flooded Charlotte for the CEC's April 14-17 annual convention. Because of the larger-than-expected crowd, many sessions were filled to capacity, and some members were turned away. The big turnout was attributed in part to the release last month of the U.S. Department of Education's final IDEA regulations and other issues that have put the controversial law in the spotlight recently.

A record 106 school districts bought exhibit space to recruit job-seekers attending the conference, according to meeting organizers.

"We're trying to get people from all across the country to reflect our diversity," said Jim Lieb, the special education director for the 26,000-student Loudoun County, Va., district. He said he needed to hire about 60 special education teachers for the coming school year.

With special education facing chronic shortages of qualified teachers, colleges and universities are being pressured to create accelerated teacher-training programs and to recruit candidates more aggressively. But such efforts may not result in better teachers or satisfy the public's increasing demands for accountability, panelists at one session said.

"The shortage has remained constant, but the quality has dropped," said Lynne H. Cooke, a researcher and special education professor at California State University-Northridge.

Engaging the parents of minority special education students has also been a nagging problem for schools. Under the IDEA, schools are required to inform parents of their legal rights and ensure that they can take part in the process of creating their children's individualized education plans, or IEPs.

Barbara J. Walker, an associate professor of special education at Clark Atlanta University, gave participants advice on how to better communicate with parents who may have cultural and language barriers.

The main problem, Ms. Walker said, is that school officials do not always understand the perspective of the family members, and thus may inadvertently treat them in a condescending manner. Teachers and administrators should get to know the families and be sensitive to parents' disadvantages, such as poverty or their own disabilities, she said. Above all, she said, schools should make better efforts to protect the privacy of special education students and their families.

In addition, Ms. Walker said, the IEP team should create a friendly, informal environment so the parents will feel welcome, and should structure their meetings so the parents can have input.

But some parents still view special education as "a bad place," she said, and refuse to meet with school officials. When that happens, Ms. Walker advised, teachers should try to get to know other family members who may be able to sway the parents' opinions or even attend the IEP team meetings.

--Joetta L. Sack

Vol. 18, Issue 33, Page 6

Published in Print: April 28, 1999, as States, Districts Unsure How To Test Students With Disabilities
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