Special Education

Special Education Test Flexibility Detailed

By Christina A. Samuels — May 17, 2005 3 min read
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States can start taking advantage of flexibility under the No Child Left Behind Act for some of their special education students this school year, but they will have to clear several hurdles to do so, the Department of Education announced last week.

The new details about the testing flexibility that Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings first outlined in April got a mixed reaction from state education officials, with some suggesting that the requirements were too complex.

Secretary Spellings announced last month that 2 percent of students in special education who have “persistent academic disabilities” could be tested using modified assessments. The result, for some states, is that more of their students who are in special education will be deemed proficient under the No Child Left Behind law’s standards. (“States to Get New Options on NCLB Law,” April 13, 2005.)

The Education Department already allows 1 percent of students with “severe cognitive disabilities” to be counted as proficient even if they take alternative assessments that are below grade level. The additional 2 percent is intended to allow for students who, even with the best instruction, cannot meet grade-level standards, Ms. Spellings has said.

Ms. Spellings said in a May 10 teleconference with reporters that the flexibility options will come with some fairly rigid guidelines. “This is not for everybody,” she said. “It will be for a good number of states, no doubt about it.”

Asked why the flexibility wouldn’t be extended to every state immediately, Raymond J. Simon, the acting deputy secretary of education, explained that the department wants to see progress.

“This groundwork is absolutely fundamental,” Mr. Simon said in the teleconference. “It’s something that every state should be doing anyway.”

New NCLB Leeway

While the Department of Education drafts a regulation on the 2 percent flexibility rule for testing students with persistent academic disabilities, it is offering states two options as they calculate their test results for this school year.

Option 1: States that do not have modified achievement standards for students with disabilities may make an adjustment to provide additional credit to schools or districts that would miss making adequate yearly progress, or AYP, solely because of the achievement of students in that subgroup. Essentially, states will be able to add a “proxy” passing percentage to the proportion of special education students who actually passed the tests. The actual passing percentage plus the proxy would determine a school’s special education subgroup score.

Option 2: States that do have modified achievement standards for students with disabilities may count in AYP calculations the proficient scores of such students tested on those modified standards up to the 2 percent cap. States must also show they have administered tests based on modified standards for more than two years, established clear testing guidelines, used a valid method to craft the tests, and trained teachers in how to use them.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education

To use the short-term options, a state must, among other things, have a 95 percent or more test-participation rate and use the same subgroup size for students with disabilities that they use for other subgroups.

After meeting those requirements, a state has two options. One would allow it to use a mathematical formula to increase the passing rate for students with disabilities. The other would allow the state to count more scores from alternative tests as proficient.

The Education Department will also consider other options a state may offer, as long as they maintain high standards.

Patricia F. Sullivan, the director of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy, said she had no idea how many states would be able to meet all those standards.

Limited Possibilities?

“It would appear under this that a whole bunch of states will be knocked off” at the start from the possibility of using the transitional options, Ms. Sullivan said. And, she said, students with persistent academic disabilities are not conveniently clustered in states that have met all of the Education Department’s requirements.

Robert Runkel, Montana’s director of special education services, said he appreciates that the federal department is allowing more testing flexibility for states. However, under the new options, he believes only one school in his state would have been able to take advantage of the flexibility based on 2003-04 test results. That’s because only one school failed to make AYP solely because of the test scores of students in special education.

Montana has about 145,000 students in public education and 19,000, or 13 percent, in special education.

Mr. Runkel said that children with persistent academic disabilities would be reflected not only in the special education subgroup scores, but also in the scores of any other subgroups in which they fall. Thus, they could be pulling down a district’s scores in more than one category. The federal law requires schools to show progress not just with students overall, but with student subsets by race, socioeconomic status, and other factors, including participation in special education.

“I think there might be room for some flexibility in that circumstance,” Mr. Runkel said of students who fit into more than one group.

Other state officials praised the new rules. Patti Harrington, the superintendent of education for Utah, a state that has been in the forefront of opposition to the 3-year-old federal law, said under the former AYP testing rules, some students with persistent academic difficulties were tested at a grade level that was inappropriate for them.

The changes “are doing the right thing by children,” Ms. Harrington said.

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