The Massachusetts board of education is expected this week to back a new state policy that will set up separate state-exam appeals processes for students with disabilities and regular education students.
Legislation signed into law in late November relaxed the appeals process for students with disabilities. That action set off a debate over whether separate rules for appealing test scores could be adopted for students with and without disabilities.
The state board, which has been reviewing the law, planned to discuss and approve rules for implementing it at its Jan. 27 meeting, state school board President James A. Peyser said.
“Students with disabilities should have some options not available to regular education students,” Mr. Peyser said last week. “One question was whether that was OK in this case.”
Massachusetts students must pass 10th grade Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests in English and mathematics to graduate. Previously, students who scored 216 out of a possible 280—just under the passing mark of 220—could appeal their scores. The appeal allows them to demonstrate in other ways that their math or English skills meet the standards evaluated by the tests.
Under the new law, students with disabilities are no longer required to attain a score of 216 to appeal. Now, regardless of their score, they can appeal and try to meet the state standard through classroom work.
In another policy shift, the new law requires district superintendents to file an appeal on behalf of an eligible student with a disability if the parent—or the student himself if age 18 or older—requests it. In the past, the decision to appeal belonged to the superintendent.
Mr. Peyser said that the state board has been deliberate in studying its next step because “we were concerned that [the legislature] may create a system that did not have consistent standards.”
He believes that current policies don’t pose unfair barriers to regular education students: “The doors are so wide open [that] anybody with a reasonable shot has a chance of getting a positive outcome.”
Mr. Peyser added that, in the case of appeals by students in special education, the board might want to revise language in the regulations to make sure the burden of proof rests with the superintendent and the student, rather than with the state commissioner of education, who makes the final decision.
Legal vs. Political Muster
Martha Thurlow, the director of the National Center on Educational Outcomes, located at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, said handling the test-appeals process for students with and without disabilities is a hot issue. About 15 states have different appeals policies for students with disabilities, she said.
“It’s something to watch closely right now,” Ms. Thurlow said.
National education policy experts say that having a different testing-appeals track for students with disabilities does not pose a problem in passing legal scrutiny.
“Consider for a minute how different the rights are of disabled students,” said Jay Heubert, an associate professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University. “They have tons of rights that others do not have.”
But passing political muster is a different matter.
Parents might score a win politically if they build enough of a sense that the new regulations are unfair, Mr. Heubert said.
No one has protested yet in Massachusetts, but the board has anticipated such a reaction, Mr. Peyser said.
He said the board was expected to pass the regulations at its meeting, which will go into effect immediately because they are considered “emergency.” The regulations will then be sent out for public comment and the board will cast a final vote in March.
One advocate for fairness in standardized testing argues that the MCAS appeals process should have been relaxed for all students, but especially for students with disabilities.
“It was an interesting debate over whether opening up the process to special-needs students would open the floodgates [for all],” said Monty Neill, the executive director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, based in Cambridge, Mass. “We are hoping it will.”
Mr. Peyser acknowledged that the appeals process for students with disabilities is a politically sensitive issue. “From a policy perspective, it’s delicate,” he said. “You don’t want to create pathways that go so far as to create a lower standard for some students than others.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 28, 2004 edition of Education Week as Mass. Board Poised to Back Dual Appeals Process for Tests