Ruling on an issue that confronts states nationwide, a federal judge has ordered California to make accommodations for students with disabilities on its high school exit exam and to develop an alternative form of the test for some special education students.
U.S. District Judge Charles R. Breyer said the state may administer its first mandatory statewide high school exit exam this week as planned. But he ruled that special education students can be afforded any testing accommodation that they have been determined to need, including the use of calculators, spell- checkers, or extra time, during the testing set for March 5-7.
Without the changes, the test would do “harm to a student’s dignity and educational prospects,” the judge said in his Feb. 21 ruling, issued in San Francisco. The state had planned not to allow accommodations that students used regularly for classwork and for other tests unless the students first obtained waivers from the state.
The judge refused to call off the California High School Exit Exam or make it voluntary, as a class action filed on behalf of students with disabilities had requested. The judge has yet to rule on how the state should grade the tests of students with disabilities, as well as other contentious issues.
Starting with the class of 2004—whose members are now in 10th grade— passing the test will be a graduation requirement. Of California’s 450,000 10th graders, at least 45,000 have disabilities.
Doug Stone, a spokesman for the California Department of Education, said department officials were relieved that the test could still be given to most students.
“The big picture is that the judge is allowing the state to continue to administer the test to all but a small number of 10th graders,” he said. “This is significant because we need to test as many students as possible to get data as we develop the test,” Mr. Stone said. “The state needs to respect accommodations, and we understand that and are sensitive to that.”
But as states across the country struggle with how to include students with disabilities in high-stakes testing, one national testing expert called the judge’s decision a landmark. It is the first time a state has been ordered to adjust its exit exam for special education students, she said.
“I think this is another indicator of the need for states to be looking carefully at what is happening in our assessment system for students with disabilities,” said Martha Thurlow, the director of the National Center on Educational Outcomes, based at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. “Many states are having to do a broad rethinking of what we really are attempting to measure on the tests. Are we really providing access to all students to the assessments?”
In their lawsuit, filed in May of last year, lawyers for special education students claimed the California exam would be unfair to students with disabilities, in part because students would need state waivers to use accommodations.
Deferring to the IEP
But now, thanks to the judge’s ruling, the waivers won’t be required. Instead, the state must defer to a student’s individualized education plan, which is essentially a road map developed by parents, educators, and specialists laying out educational goals for special education students and details of the testing and classroom accommodations they need.
Judge Breyer said students whose disabilities don’t allow them to demonstrate their knowledge in a standardized- test format could choose either to take the test with accommodations this week or wait for the state to come up with a different version for them.
Lawyers for the special education students said they were pleased with the ruling.
“California’s hastily created and ill-thought-out exit exam is a disaster for children with disabilities,” said Sid Wolinsky, the director of litigation at Disability Rights Advocates, a nonprofit legal group in Oakland, Calif. “Without this order, the test would have used schoolchildren as guinea pigs for an educational experiment that has been slapped together without the planning and careful preparation that is necessary.”
Students can take the test up to seven times, and 10th graders had their first chance to take the test last spring. That round won’t count against the students who failed, but those who passed will not need to take it again. This month’s test is the first in which a failing grade will be counted against students.
The results from the tests given last spring showed that 91 percent of students with disabilities failed the mathematics section and 82 percent failed the language arts portion. Meanwhile, about 52 percent of students without disabilities failed the math section, and 31 percent failed the language arts assessment.
Mr. Stone of the state education department said the exam is still a “work in progress.” The state has hired a consulting company to review the scores of students with disabilities from this month’s round of testing and come up with ways to improve the test. He also said the department needs clarification from the judge on how to develop an alternative assessment for students with disabilities.
“An alternative assessment could go different ways. Do we evaluate the kids using a portfolio versus creating a different standardized test? We are unsure on that aspect of it,” he said.
The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires states to have devised alternative-assessment methods by July 2000, the judge noted in his decision.
Ms. Thurlow, the testing expert, said that in many states, alternative assessments are designed for students not working toward a standards-based diploma. She said the court decision is “another wake-up call” to states to focus on how to test students in special education who are working at grade level, but unable to show their knowledge on standardized tests.
She said some states, including Massachusetts and Oregon, have creative methods of assessing special education students for graduation through a panel review or a portfolio of their work.
The California suit is one of the first in the country to examine the participation of students with disabilities in high- stakes testing, experts said.
Disability Rights Advocates settled a case with Oregon last year, when the state agreed to convene a panel of national experts to find ways to include students with disabilities in the state’s assessments. (“Ore. Special-Needs Students to Get Testing Assistance,” Feb. 14, 2001.)
Melissa Kasnitz, a lawyer for Disability Rights Advocates, said the California decision acknowledges that exit exams can discriminate against students in more ways than just keeping them from graduating.
“The harm isn’t just denying a diploma, but the denial of the civil rights themselves for students with disabilities in being able to participate in the educational process in a way that is respecting their dignity,” Ms. Kasnitz said. She said the decision also recognizes the expertise of local educators in determining what special education students need to succeed through an IEP.
A June hearing has been scheduled for the case, but Ms. Kasnitz said she hopes to reach a settlement before then.
“We certainly don’t want the judge to have to make all of the decisions about the test,” Ms. Kasnitz said.
A version of this article appeared in the March 06, 2002 edition of Education Week as Spec. Ed. Advocates Hail Graduation-Test Ruling