California Students With Disabilities Face Exit Exam

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In moving to require a high school exit exam for students with disabilities, California’s board of education has decided against the creation of an alternate assessment—a route chosen by some other states—while acknowledging that one outcome of its decision could be that fewer students with disabilities will earn a diploma.

The board’s May 10 recommendation came after months of considering ways to make the test fairer for students with special needs. It goes to the state legislature, which will make the final decision on how the California High School Exit Exam, or CAHSEE, applies to students with disabilities.

The lack of an alternate assessment has been one of the major sticking points with the California exam, which went into effect for students in general education for the class of 2006. It was delayed for students in special education in the class of 2006 and 2007. Nine states have such alternatives.

But state Superintendent Jack O’Connell, who was involved in the creation of the CAHSEE program in 1999 when he was a Democratic state senator, said alternate examinations risk allowing special education students to get a high school diploma without mastering basic skills.

“I have never seen an alternate assessment that accurately portrayed mastery of our standards,” he said in an interview. “It would be a huge mistake to lower our expectations for our special education students.”

Under the board’s recommendation, students with disabilities would be allowed to use any modification or accommodation called for in their individualized education programs. Students who didn’t pass would also have the opportunity to participate in a number of remediation programs and take the test over. In rare cases, principals would be allowed to seek waivers so they could award diplomas to students who have completed the appropriate class work.

Advocates Concerned

Earning the Diploma

The California High School Exit Exam was authorized by state law in 1999 but went into effect for the first time for the class of 2006.

• The test is divided into two parts: English language arts and mathematics, including concepts learned in Algebra 1.

• Students have six opportunities to pass the test, beginning in the sophomore year. They need only retake the parts they failed.

• A lawsuit and legislative action eliminated the need to pass the test for students with disabilities in the classes of 2006 and 2007. Without further legislative action, the mandate will be in place for all students, including those with disabilities, for the class of 2008.

• The state board of education recommended that students with disabilities who do not pass the test but complete their classwork in a satisfactory way receive a waiver of the test requirement from the district superintendent. The student’s principal is responsible for requesting the waiver.

The recommendation left some advocacy groups displeased. Among them is the Disability Rights Association, an Oakland, Calif., organization that filed a class action against the state in 2001 on behalf of students with disabilities. Called Chapman v. California Department of Education, the lawsuit claimed the test discriminated against students with special needs, who may not have been given access to the curriculum they were expected to master. ("Calif. Special Education Students Could Get Exam Break," Sept. 7, 2005.)

The association would like to see a “portfolio” assessment created for students with disabilities, which would involve an organized gathering of student work that demonstrates a student’s skills. Assuming that the current test will prompt schools to make improvement in their special education programs “is really a shot in the dark,” said Roger Heller, a lawyer with the association.

Even if that were true, Mr. Heller said, “it’s really sacrificing students that are in the system now for this idea of improvements for students down the road.”

The creation of portfolio assessments also has support from state lawmakers. Gloria Romero, a Democrat and the majority leader in the California Senate, said in a statement after the board’s decision that an alternative assessment is necessary. She introduced a bill in January that would allow students with disabilities to receive a diploma if they successfully complete a “juried assessment of tasks.”

“Education’s role is to teach students and help them succeed, not plant obstacles in their path,” she said in the statement.

Appropriate Assessments

Creating a test process appropriate for students with disabilities has been a major challenge with the CAHSEE, which took effect for students in general education with the class of 2006.

California’s recent action is an example of how states are wrestling with high-stakes exams for students with disabilities. Twenty-two states have exit-exam requirements for all students, including students with disabilities, and 25 programs are expected to be in place for all students by 2012, according to the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based research group.

“For a long time, there were arguments that schools should be held accountable before students were held accountable, and many people still argue that,” said Martha L. Thurlow, the director of the federally funded National Center on Educational Outcomes at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. “But, seeing data from some states with graduation exams suggests that when you hold students [with disabilities] accountable, schools step up to make sure that the students receive the access to the content that they need to be successful.”

She believes the positives appear to outweigh the negatives when it comes to including students with disabilities in such exam programs.

The challenge for states, Ms. Thurlow said, is to make sure that students get appropriate accommodations and to offer another path to a high school diploma for students with disabilities who can’t take the regular assessment.

“The alternative routes should be other ways for these students to show that they have mastered the graduation standards—but these other ways should not just be taking another test,” Ms. Thurlow said in an e-mail interview.

Vol. 26, Issue 38, Pages 18, 23

Published in Print: May 23, 2007, as California Students With Disabilities Face Exit Exam
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