Where does special education fit?
Goal of new federal law is that every child scores as proficient by 2014
Deseret Morning News
June 10, 2003
By Jennifer Toomer-Cook
The federal government wants to leave no child behind in school. But when the
student is in special education, is there any way to get ahead?
It's a question being asked, and argued, nationwide, as the No Child Left
Behind Act extends sanctions to schools with stagnant test scores and as
policymakers hash out regulations on how states should apply the law.
The national goal is to ensure every child in every group, from children who
speak little English to those living in poverty, scores as proficient on state
tests by 2014.
So far, 31 percent of Utah third- through eighth-graders with disabilities,
which could range from speech therapy to learning
disabilities, have achieved those ranks in language arts on the state core
curriculum test, which is used to comply with NCLB.
Twenty-eight percent are proficient in math.
Clearly, special education students have a long ways to go.
And some education officials say many them don't have the
means, at least within NCLB regulations, to get there.
The 2001 No Child Left Behind Act is based on the idea all
children can achieve. It requires test scores for every student
group be publicized, mainly to give schools incentive to examine
their practices and make improvements. Schools whose test
scores don't progress face sanctions.
"The aim is to help ensure these kids are not just
disregarded by the school districts," said Christine Wolfe, director of policy
for the U.S.
Department of Education in the Office of the Undersecretary. "Once you put high
in place, you see achievement gains."
Carol Murphy, staff attorney at Utah's Disability Law Center, which often takes
complaints aimed at getting schools to live up to students' rights under the
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, believes the law has merit.
"I think there are some advantages . . . in that (special education students')
or lack of progress is easier to track, and it's easier to see trends and room
and problem areas," she said. "I think done correctly, there are some potential
But some educators don't think NCLB can be fairly applied to all
groups — particularly, those with limited English skills and those
who receive special education services.
Non-English speakers have boosted overall scores over time. On
the 2001 core curriculum test, students categorized as formerly
limited in English proficiency outperformed native English speakers
in 11 of 23 published test results.
Education officials acknowledge some special education
students in Utah could be held to a higher standard, and would
show progress on state tests under NCLB, too. But not all.
"What we're finding is that we have a large number of students
with disabilities who are taking core assessments and that with the
appropriate accommodations (such as larger print or extra time, as
allowed by law), many are scoring proficient and near proficient.
Those things are helping many students to show they've learned the
skills," said Karl Wilson, state director of at-risk student services.
"But we're also finding as students move up through the grades
. . . the gap between their disabilities and their peer group
And that leads to a whole new set of fears that many of Utah's
56,000 special education students will be viewed as dead weight in
schools' climb up the test score ladder.
"These kids have severe disabilities and probably never will be
on par with other kids," said Tinia Drennan, special education teacher at South
Elementary School, who teaches students who have had little success in regular
and resource classes. But, she adds: "These aren't kids who have been left
forgotten, or who have fallen through the cracks."
Special education students have Individual Education
Plans, with goals drafted by their teachers and parents.
Teachers meet with parents regularly during the year to
share test scores, concerns, or update goals — and that's
being held plenty accountable, Drennan said.
Drennan's 12 fourth- through sixth-graders have
learning disabilities and communicative disorders, but
regular intellectual capabilities.
Many are visual learners and keen reasoners, but
their brains don't process language information the same
way a regular education student's can. And that stifles
their learning, and ability to do well on standardized
So Drennan expects to see tears when these
year-round students take statewide core curriculum tests
Some kids, she says, will crumple up their exams. Others, unable to guess or
on to the next question if they don't know the answer, will be overcome by
"It breaks everyone's hearts to think that their work is going to be
invalidated" by the
test. "How do you work toward an unattainable goal?"
But some believe the goal is actually within reach, particularly considering
Instead of taking the regular grade-level test, 1 percent of a school district's
could take an alternative test. The alternative test would be on the individual
level, and their performance will be interpreted as if they took the real
grade-level test on
district overall scores, under proposed NCLB rules.
The figure is based on the education department's calculation of the national
rate for severe mental retardation. The department has taken public comment on
proposal, which will weigh into the finalized rule, Wolfe said.
Utah's testing coordinator, however, says the proposed 1 percent rule won't
the students that need the exemption.
"We have . . . the severely disabled, and kids who are able, and the in-between
Louise Moulding said. "We're trying to let the very, very bottom of the
in-between kids take
the alternative assessment, but the vast bulk of those in-between kids (would)
tests on grade level. What we want is appropriate assessment for those
However, more than 1 percent of the population can use alternative assessments,
Wolfe said. Still, it appears under the proposal that the spillover scores
likely would count
against overall district scores.
Also, proposed rules would allow school districts to ask for a larger waiver if
1 percent of their student population is severely disabled.
Cal Evans, Jordan School District's director of compliance, plans to apply for
exemptions as they surface.
"If there's a student who's really disabled, and they request an alternative
in my district, they're going to get it," he said. "These kids . . . already
that marginalize them with their peers, that makes them not as valued. And this
more thing, and I just don't like that."
Wilson has concerns, too. He hopes to find a way to let some special education
students demonstrate what they know outside of a standardized test. That way,
really know what special education students have learned and can do.
But that will be difficult under NCLB. Standardization, after all, is the
foundation of the
Other school districts nationwide are expected to follow Evans' lead, and seek
exemptions for students with disabilities outside the 1 percent proposed rule.
And if they're not all granted? Evans says he'll cross that bridge when he comes
"In this business, it's about having convictions about what you believe in."