Spec. Ed. Testing Waivers In Texas Questioned

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Schools in Texas that moved up the most in their state accountability ratings last year also tended to excuse a higher percentage of special education students from taking the high-stakes state test than other schools, according to a study from the University of Texas at Austin.

The statewide analysis reviewed special education exemptions from the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills in 1999, the first year in which special education students' scores were counted toward schools' ratings. Author Ed Fuller, a senior research and policy specialist at the university, said the study showed schools that rose a level or two in the rankings had the biggest increases in exemptions.

But the report, done at the request of the Austin American-Statesman newspaper, concluded that more research was needed to determine if the TAAS exemptions caused the schools' ratings to rise.

"The concern for parents and advocates is that when more students were exempted, we don't know if they are being served well," Mr. Fuller said.

A higher rating not only confers prestige on schools, but it also can make them eligible for monetary rewards for improving or ranking in a high category. Texas' rating system takes into account both how well a school's students score on the TAAS overall, and how various racial and ethnic minority groups fare.

State education officials said they were not concerned about the study's findings.

Marilyn Kuehlem, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, said schools use discretion in deciding whether individual special education students are able to take the test. The agency requires special education students to be taught the state curriculum and to take the TAAS, unless a school determines that is inappropriate for the students' needs and abilities, she said.

Ms. Kuehlem said the state would unveil a new version of the test next spring specifically designed for special education students. The scores on that test will be counted toward accountability ratings in 2004.

"We're very cognizant of special education students being part of our school system," she said.

Exemptions Up Statewide

The study compared exemptions in the 1997-98 school year, when many special education students took the test without their scores counting toward the schools' ratings, with those in 1998-99, when the scores began to count.

In 1999, the percentage of special education students exempted from the TAAS jumped from 37.5 percent to 50 percent statewide, Mr. Fuller found. Within the state, exemption rates varied widely from district to district, he said.

The state's testing system has attracted national scrutiny this year, in part because of the role it played in Texas Gov. George W. Bush's campaign for the White House. The Republican presidential nominee cited gains on the TAAS as evidence of the state's academic progress.

Earlier studies of the system include one released late last month that sparked a sharp exchange between the campaigns of Mr. Bush and his Democratic opponent, Vice President Al Gore. That study by researchers at the RAND Corp., a think tank based in Santa Monica, Calif., found that the state's rising TAAS scores were not mirrored by similar gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. But other scholars questioned those findings. ("Candidates Spar Over Test Gains in Texas," Nov. 1, 2000.)

Mr. Fuller's study comes as educators in Texas and elsewhere are grappling with how to fairly assess special education students while holding schools accountable for teaching all students.

Topic for National Group

Assessing special education students was a major theme of last week's annual conference of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education.

Speakers said states vary in their reasons for exempting students from testing, and in the accommodations they allow for students with special needs. And several state special education directors at the Nov. 12-15 conference in Orlando, Fla., said assessments were their main concern.

Michael Pons, a spokesman for the National Education Association, suggested that Texas' accountability system may motivate schools to exempt too many children from testing in order to increase their scores. But he said he did not object to exemptions for special education students if a test is inappropriate for them.

A spokesman for the Council for Exceptional Children said the Texas exemptions may have violated the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

"CEC supports the IDEA laws and believes all students should be included in any assessments," said CEC spokesman Charles Rogers.

Vol. 20, Issue 12, Page 6

Published in Print: November 22, 2000, as Spec. Ed. Testing Waivers In Texas Questioned
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