Special Report
Special Education

The Testing Dilemma

By Sean Cavanagh — January 08, 2004 11 min read
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School never came easy to Jennifer Hunt. She needed extra time to write clearly and understand words on the page, but those hurdles never tripped up her ambition. Despite coping with the disorder known as aphasia, the Indianapolis native resolved early on that she would make it to college, and eventually, to a career in physical therapy.

Those aspirations have been put on hold. Hunt has failed several attempts at Indiana’s high school graduation exam, which she must pass to secure a diploma. Without it, she can’t get into the university she wants. So she enrolled in remedial classes at a nearby campus of Ivy Tech State College instead.

“I’ve had a lot of trouble ever since I was in elementary school with tests,” says Hunt, who left Indianapolis’ Perry Meridian High School two years ago with a certificate of completion. Now 22, she took the state exit exam again last fall and was awaiting the results. “It’s been really difficult trying to deal with the situation, trying to fix the situation.”

Hunt and students like her around the country who have a broad range of physical and cognitive disabilities have found that state exit exams pose a final, daunting challenge in their transition to life after high school. Those students reside at the heart of one of the most agonizing debates to emerge within the nationwide push for more testing and accountability.

Fourteen states so far have exit exams that students with disabilities must pass to earn a high school diploma; California and the District of Columbia plan to phase them in by 2008. As a result, students with disabilities face increasing pressure to keep up with their peers, both on test day and during the years of preparation leading up to it. At the same time, state educators face questions about how much extra help to provide such students and whether to deny them diplomas if they fail the exams.

Critics say the tests impose a narrowly defined academic standard on a student population with a diverse set of cognitive and physical circumstances. Denying those students diplomas will hamper their ability to secure good-paying jobs or gain admission to a two- or four-year college, they contend.

The benefits of a diploma are tangible. In 2001, high school graduates earned an average of about $27,040 annually, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, compared with only $19,656 for those who left school without diplomas.

“I’m someone who believes in high standards. I just don’t believe in one uniform standard,” says Ken Knoblauch. His daughter Heather—who is mildly mentally handicapped—left high school in Woodburn, Ind., without a diploma in 2001 after failing the state’s Graduation Qualifying Exam several times. Eventually, she received a diploma from a private school in Illinois after spending an extra year taking classes that the school arranged for her at a location near her hometown.

Yet the supporters of state exit exams, including some advocates for people with disabilities, argue that removing special education students from the test-taking population curtails their academic opportunities.

Amy Cook Lurvey, of the Council of Volunteers and Organizations for Hoosiers with Disabilities, says that holding students in special education to the same standard as their peers in regular programs helps undo stereotypes.

“If our kids are excluded, they are not seen as first-class citizens in their school communities,” says Lurvey, the co-chairperson of the Accountability for All Students Project for the council, an Indianapolis-based coalition of state and local groups. “We’re trying to make people understand [these students] are people first, and they can learn.”

Others say requiring special education students to pass exit exams reflects an overall push to restore meaning to the high school diploma. “The definition of graduation has changed,” says Daniel Wiener, the director of student-assessment services in Massachusetts, where an exit exam began carrying consequences for students in 2003. “We changed it to mean it [carries] a certain level of academic achievement.”

Success or Exclusion?

As Wiener and others note, an increasing percentage of students in special education are passing exit tests. In Massachusetts, 67 percent of such students in the class of 2004 have passed the state exams. Only 32 percent passed the first time they took the tests as 10th graders.

Indiana officials see similar evidence of success. Of the state’s 5,010 special education students in the class of 2002, 79 percent received diplomas, while only 21 percent received certificates of completion. Of those who earned diplomas, 54 percent did so by passing the exit exam. Another 31 percent received diplomas through a state waiver process, and 13 percent did so by completing a core college-preparatory curriculum, known as the Core 40, with a minimum grade requirement.

Yet in many states, wide gaps persist between the passing rates of such students and their other peers. Last summer, the California board of education delayed graduation-test requirements until the class of 2006, after an independent study found disproportionately high failure rates among several groups of students-including those with disabilities. Only 22 percent of special education students in the class of 2004 had passed the math portion of the California High School Exit Exam, compared with 62 percent of their classmates without disabilities.

Similarly, last fall, New York state officials decided to continue offering alternative diplomas to special education students through the class of 2013, after finding a “significant gap” between their performance and that of the general student population.

Some researchers have questioned the improvements in passing scores touted by state officials, particularly because many students in special education drop out well before graduation day and may never be counted in such statistics.

“If low-achieving students are not part of the test-taking population, then the pass rates of those who remain will be higher,” writes Jay P. Heubert, an associate professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University, “even if the achievement of those who actually take the test has not improved.”

Lawsuits Flourish

Over the past few years, the battle over how special education students should be treated on exit exams has shifted to the courtroom. Students, families, and disability- rights advocates have filed lawsuits in several states, including California, Indiana, and Massachusetts, seeking to halt or delay the imposition of the graduation requirements.

In all those cases, the plaintiffs argued that students with disabilities either were not given adequate accommodations to pass the tests or were not provided enough academic preparation in their classes up to that point to prepare them for the level of mathematics, science, and reading they encountered.

The Indiana Supreme Court in 2002 declined to hear a case brought by the state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union and the families of several special education students. They had argued that those students should be exempt from the test until they were adequately prepared for it. The legal fights in California and Massachusetts are pending.

There’s a “pretty direct relationship” between special education students’ test scores and the amount of time they spent in general education classrooms, asserts Margaret J. McLaughlin, a professor of special education at the University of Maryland College Park. “They need to have instruction by teachers who really know the subject- matter content,” she says.

Too often, she says, decisions about whether students with disabilities are assigned to general classrooms or special education settings are made with little consistency or understanding of their individual abilities. As a result, such students may have spent years with limited access to the subject matter they are likely to encounter on exit exams—even though those tests typically evaluate students at only a 9th or 10th grade level.

A preliminary analysis released in June 2003 by the State Accountability for All Students project, a three-year national study based at the University of Dayton, found that states with high school graduation tests tended to place students with disabilities in more restrictive settings than states without such requirements. States with graduation tests educated a lower proportion of students with disabilities in regular classes for 80 percent or more of the school day than did states without such exams (45 percent vs. 52 percent). And they educated a higher percentage of such students outside the general education classroom 60 percent or more of the school day (21 percent vs. 14 percent).

Others, though, say graduation tests have made school officials think twice before sending students with disabilities to special education classrooms. The consequences of not giving students access to high-level coursework, those observers say, are now greater than ever.

A study of California’s high school exit test, released in 2003 by the Human Resources Research Organization, found that many public high schools were making a greater effort to mainstream students with disabilities—or put them in a greater number of general education courses—as a result of the graduation exam.

The report also suggested that the exit exam, and the academic-content standards on which it is based, had influenced special education instruction, too.

Of the 50 special educators polled as part of the study, 36 said their departments had used the standards in designing students’ individualized education plans. And 38 of those same instructors indicated they were at least familiar with those content standards, according to the report by the private research and consulting firm in Alexandria, Va.

Waivers and Options

In many states, as in Indiana, special education students who believe they are being unfairly denied a diploma have other options. They can apply for waivers or acquire the credential by showing their ability in other ways.

The decision to grant a waiver in Indiana is made locally by a case-conference committee. Made up of teachers, administrators, and special education instructors who have worked with individual students, the panel judges whether a student has shown sufficient academic ability to receive a diploma.

Indiana students seeking waivers must continue to take the state exit exam and engage in remedial work provided by their schools. They also must maintain C averages in a number of core courses, meet attendance requirements, and obtain written recommendations from teachers in test subjects for which the students have not achieved passing scores.

Yet some advocates for people with disabilities say parents and students nationwide are confused about waiver requirements. “You need a really together district, and a really together parent, to get a waiver,” says Melissa W. Kasnitz, a staff lawyer for Disability Rights Advocates. The nonprofit group, based in Oakland, Calif, challenged the California exit exam in federal court under civil rights laws.

“This is not very high on the radar of school districts, yet it will prevent students from getting a diploma,” she says of waiver provisions.

Robert A. Marra, the associate superintendent of the Indiana education department’s division of exceptional learners, acknowledges some inconsistencies in how districts apply the rules.

But, he argues, the fact that more than 30 percent of all students with disabilities in his state’s class of 2002 received diplomas through the waiver process proves that schools and students regard the waiver as a viable option.

Indiana officials are studying which students, with what particular disabilities, receive waivers most often, in the hope of improving the process, Marra adds.

Most states with exit exams also allow students to continue working toward diplomas—after leaving high school. Indiana schools receive money to provide remedial services to such students, though it is the parents’ and students’ duty to take advantage of that help.

Twenty-six states and the District of Columbia also grant students with disabilities some form of alternative certificate of completion, instead of a standard diploma, if they pass all graduation requirements but fail the exit test, according to Education Week’s state policy survey. The value of such alternative certificates in the eyes of employers and colleges is unknown.

Some states, such as Alaska and Massachusetts, allow students with disabilities to take an alternate assessment to earn a regular diploma.

In trying to address the worries of special education students and their families, states such as Massachusetts also have added more flexibility to the testing process, through accommodations and other measures aimed at making sure those students are judged fairly, says Wiener, that state’s assessment official.

About 100 students, for example, have earned diplomas through an alternate assessment linked to grade-level standards. Other states under similar scrutiny, Wiener suggests, would be wise to follow suit, while making sure they continue to hold those students to a high standard.

“The temptation is to cave in, to give in to the pressure to just delay, to set up separate standards for different kids,” he says, “and we never did that.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 08, 2004 edition of Education Week


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