Special Education

States Await Special Education Testing Rule

By Christina A. Samuels — December 13, 2005 3 min read
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The Department of Education this week plans to release proposed regulations on testing flexibility for certain students with disabilities, which will guide states in the lengthy process of developing new assessments.

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In April, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings announced that 2 percent of students in special education who have “persistent academic disabilities” could be tested with alternate assessments based on modified achievement standards. Since then, states were given the opportunity to use some short-term measures to adjust their test scores for students with disabilities for the 2004-05 school year.

The goal of the flexibility policy is to accommodate students who can work toward grade-level standards, but cannot do so at the same speed as their peers, even with the best instruction. And the result of the flexibility, 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.

“I don’t think they’re going to carve out new territory” in the regulations, said Patricia F. Sullivan, the director of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy. “They’ll spell out more clearly what states are supposed to do.”

Mixed Reviews

Alexa Posny, the deputy commissioner of the Kansas Department of Education, agreed with that assessment of the forthcoming rules. She has been in conversations with officials in the federal Education Department, and said one question that came up was how to define just what kind of disability would qualify a student for the 2 percent category.

But, children who may need the testing flexibility could be in any number of disability categories, she said, making it difficult to come up with a hard and fast rule. Kansas first used a policy that said such children must be scoring in the 4th percentile or lower on a certain standardized test. Now, the state’s policy is not so strongly tied to quantitative measures, she said.

“After a while, you just know what these kids look like,” she said, saying the state now uses a “preponderance of evidence” measure to determine which students should take the modified assessments.

When Secretary Spellings announced the flexibility in the spring, educators offered mixed reviews. Though they generally believed there was a need to accommodate what some call “gap kids,” who are academically below grade level but are higher functioning than students with severe cognitive disabilities, the temporary flexibility rules had several hurdles for the states, some said. (“Special Education Test Flexibility Detailed,” May 18, 2005.)

For example, states already had to have a 95 percent participation rate on assessments for students with disabilities. Also, states had to use the same subgroup size, or “N-size,” for students with disabilities that they use for other student subgroups.

Still, 31 states asked the department for permission to use temporary flexibility guidelines for their adequate yearly progress calculations for the 2004-05 school year. Twenty-six states chose to use a mathematical proxy formula approved by the department that raised the passing rate of the students with disabilities subgroup, said Education Department spokesman Chad Colby.

‘The Deal Breaker’

Minnesota decided against using the flexibility policy for the 2004-05 school year, said Jessie Montano, the director of No Child Left Behind programs for the state education department.

“We had more flexibility under what we already had,” she said. In Minnesota, the testing subgroup size for students with disabilities is 40 per school, compared with 20 for other subgroups.

“We would have lost that by using the proxy,” she said.

“For a lot of states, the deal breaker was the N-size,” said Ms. Sullivan of the Center on Education Policy.

New York state decided to use the mathematical formula method approved by federal education officials and it was helpful “to a small extent,” said Rebecca H. Cort, the deputy commissioner for vocational and educational services for individuals with disabilities for the state education department. Some schools were able to make adequate yearly progress that might not have, she said.

In the meantime, she hopes the department will allow states to use the mathematical formula again while the proposed rules go through the process of final approval. New York still has to develop an assessment based on modified standards for these children, a process that takes about three years, she said.

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