Special Education

Indiana Case Focuses On Special Ed.

By Lynn Olson — May 31, 2000 9 min read
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Graduation for more than 1,000 Indiana students with disabilities hung in the balance last week, after a state judge was asked to grant a preliminary injunction that would bar the state from requiring the seniors to pass a high school exit test in order to receive a diploma.

The lawsuit is believed to be the first to directly challenge the implementation of a high-stakes exit exam as a diploma requirement for special education students.

But it reflects the complexities that many states are grappling with as they strive to raise academic expectations for all young people without causing undue harm for those who may have difficulty meeting the standards or who may not be able to reach them at all.

This spring, Delaware, New York, Virginia, and other states are struggling to devise rigorous but fair systems that accommodate all their students.

The issue is a particularly knotty one for students with disabilities. Federal law now requires that such students have access to the general curriculum, whenever appropriate, and be included in state and districtwide assessments, with appropriate accommodations. States also must develop alternate assessments for students who cannot be included in general testing.

But states are all over the map in terms of their expectations for these young people, many of whom have been excluded from the regular curriculum and from standardized testing until recently.

“It’s a challenge because you’re balancing wanting the diploma to mean something, in terms of having these skills, with being fair to kids,” said Martha L. Thurlow, the director of the federally funded National Center on Educational Outcomes at the University of Minnesota. “I think as we move into a high-stakes environment, these issues are going to increasingly come forward.”

Many experts argue that unless special education students are included in statewide testing programs and in efforts to raise standards, their needs are too easily ignored and the expectations held for them are too low.

Twenty-eight states now have exit exams that students must pass to graduate or are phasing in that requirement, according to the American Federation of Teachers.

The Indiana Civil Liberties Union filed the class action in May 1998. It alleges that the state violated students’ due-process rights by changing the rules for graduation without providing enough time for disabled students to learn the material to be tested. It also asserts that the state violated federal law by failing to adequately accommodate students’ special needs in administering the tests.

Need for Alternatives

“We are sacrificing these kids so that we can say Indiana has adequate educational standards,” said Kenneth J. Falk, the legal director for the ICLU.

Although Indiana began raising its standards and expectations for students in 1987, the lawsuit asserts that disabled youngsters and their parents did not realize they would have to meet the higher expectations until three years ago.

Indiana began giving the Graduation Qualifying Exam in both English/language arts and mathematics in 1997. The class of 2000 is the first group that must pass both portions of the exam to graduate and receive a diploma. The test measures knowledge and skills at the 9th grade level.

This year’s seniors have had five opportunities to take the test. Results from the spring 2000 administration show that 86 percent of the seniors have passed both portions of the exam.

In particular, the tests have resulted in more students gaining access to the help they need, said Suellen K. Reed, the state superintendent.

But approximately 21 percent of special education students in the diploma track, or some 1,160 young people, still have not passed the exam and have not received a waiver that would allow them to graduate on time. About 150,600 of the nearly 1 million students in Indiana’s K-12 public schools receive special education services.

Unlike many states, Indiana gives students who fail one or both portions of the test additional paths to a diploma. They can complete a core set of college-preparatory courses, known as the “Core 40,” earning a C or better in all classes and obtaining the principal’s recommendation. Or they can seek a waiver through a state law known as P.L. 146, a process that involves demonstrating high attendance in high school, completing certain courses with a C average, and meeting other criteria.

“I think the important thing is for states to have alternatives,” said Ms. Reed. “We know not to base decisions on one particular test at one particular point in time.”

“For the people who say we’re being mean,” she added, “we’d be a lot meaner to send kids out in the world thinking they have what it takes, and they don’t have it.”

‘Forcing the Opportunity’

Indiana is not the only state struggling with how to balance fairness with higher expectations for all students. A report published last year by the National Center on Educational Outcomes at the University of Minnesota found that in the 20 states it examined, policies varied widely on how to implement high-school exit tests and assign passing scores for students with disabilities.

For example, 12 states, including Indiana, required all students with disabilities to pass the same graduation exam with the same passing score as other students, regardless of their disabilities, to receive a standard diploma. In other states, the use of the test and the passing score depended on the level or severity of the student’s handicap. In a few states, such as Minnesota, New Jersey, and Ohio, students could be exempted from the test and still receive a standard diploma.

New York state is phasing in a requirement that all students pass the “Regents” exams in core academic subjects, which formerly were required only for college-bound students.

During the transition period, the state has created a “safety net” for students with disabilities. These students must have access to the Regents curriculum and take the required Regents exams. But students who fail an exam will be allowed to take an easier competency test in that subject and receive a local diploma, an option the state is phasing out for other youngsters.

“We wanted to research the impact of the new, higher standards for a period of time before we made a final recommendation to our state board about how we should handle students with disabilities,” explained Lawrence C. Gloeckler, a deputy commissioner in the state department of education.

So far, he said, results suggest that disabled students are being exposed to a more challenging curriculum and rising to meet the standards. In 1996-97, for example, about 4,400 students with disabilities took the English Regents exam and about 3,400 passed it. In 1998-99, the first year that districts were required to offer the curriculum to all students, 12,500 students with disabilities took the test and 7,500 passed it.

New York, like some other states, also has a separate IEP diploma for students with severe disabilities. And it is developing alternate assessments for these youngsters, as required by federal law.

‘Different Choices’

Virginia requires students with disabilities to pass the same Standards of Learning tests as other students. The end-of-course tests will be required for high school graduation beginning with the class of 2004. But this July, the state school board will vote on a proposal to create a new “basic diploma” for some students with disabilities and others who cannot meet the tougher requirements.

The new diploma would focus primarily on English, math, and occupational skills. “There will be an assessment tied to the diploma, but it will not be the SOL tests,” said Charles W. Finley, an assistant state superintendent.

Delaware, which will make the class of 2004 the first who must pass its high-stakes high school tests, recently approved legislation that would create three levels of diplomas, ranging from an advanced diploma to one for students who have fulfilled course requirements but have not passed the exams.

“My biggest concern is making sure that the students and their parents understand what these different choices will mean for them,” said Martha Brooks, the director for the exceptional children and early childhood group in the state department of education.

Lawmakers were responding to concerns that special education students could not meet the higher standards, she said. “They’ve now lowered the bar, but the kids aren’t going to get the end product.”

In Oregon, a group of parents and students filed a federal lawsuit last year claiming that the testing system there discriminates against students with learning disabilities.

The suit contends that in administering the “certificate of initial mastery” to 10th graders, state education officials did not make accommodations for learning-disabled students that are required by federal laws. The suit also claims that the test’s emphasis on spelling and punctuation skills, which may be particularly hard for students with conditions such as dyslexia, also makes the test itself discriminatory.

While the lawsuit is pending, the group representing the plaintiffs, the Oakland, Calif.- based Disability Rights Advocates, has negotiated several interim protections, and the state has appointed an expert panel to make recommendations for how students with disabilities can be treated fairly.

“I think there’s just a major problem in the implementation of higher standards and accountability,” said Alison M. Aubry, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.

“I don’t think anyone would disagree with wanting to improve education and improve academic standards,” she added. “But when students are held individually accountable and either they haven’t been taught the material ... or they are denied accommodations so that they’re not able to actually demonstrate what they know, then they’re in a complete lose-lose situation.”

Indeed, experts in student assessment caution that while test scores offer important information about students, they should not be used as the sole basis for making important decisions.

‘Unfair and Unjust’

“We know very well that using test scores and grades in combination leads to more valid decisions—and decisions with smaller adverse impact on minorities and women—than using test scores in isolation,” said Walter M. Haney, a professor of education at Boston College. Particularly in the realm of special education, he suggested, states might want to set broad policy guidelines but leave final decisions up to local officials.

Such advice offers little solace to Meghan Rene, the named plaintiff in the Indiana case, Meghan Rene et al. v. Dr. Suellen Reed et al. Meghan, a 19-year-old honors student, would now be getting ready for graduation, except that she has not passed the Graduation Qualifying Exam and has not been able to secure a waiver.

Last week, her mother, Robin L. Rene, said she was outraged by the testing requirement. “It’s just so unfair and unjust,” she said. “I have a child that has worked that hard and done all that is asked of her, and then the state says, ‘Too bad, that’s not enough.’”

A version of this article appeared in the May 31, 2000 edition of Education Week as Indiana Case Focuses On Special Ed.


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