Special-ed AIMS help a dilemma for schools
Arizona Daily Star
Tucson, Arizona | Published: http://www.azstarnet.com/allheadlines/146059
Heather Becerra relies on the woman to her right every day at Desert View High School.
Afflicted since birth with a rare degenerative eye disease, Becerra, a 17-year-old senior, calls on Cecilia Trujillo to help her read test questions.
Francisco Galindo, a 19-year-old senior at Desert View, says he can't make it through a math test without a calculator.
The teens, and thousands of other Tucson students like them, are in special-education classes due to physical or mental impairments that prevent them from learning at the pace of other students.
But how they're learning — and testing — is causing confusion for educators, students and parents. It's also started a heated debate about why 44 Tucson schools failed the latest round of No Child Left Behind accountability standards.
In the days following last week's release of those assessment results, called Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP, discussion of testing special-education students has resembled a high-stakes tennis match.
On one side of the net, those at the district and school levels say help should be given to special-education students who can't take tests on their own. But others say teachers should be working with students throughout the year to decrease their reliance on accommodations, namely by guiding them toward grade-level competency.
Central to the debate is the Individual Education Plan or IEP, a federally mandated guideline constructed by the special-education student and teacher at the beginning of each school year that spells out what accommodations are needed to help them learn in class and take tests.
But a year-old stipulation prevents special-education students from using certain aids, such as an aide reading questions or using a calculator on math questions, when taking AIMS, the state's accountability test. The 44 schools that failed to make AYP offered special-education students those accommodations, making the scores invalid and dropping the percentage of students in that group who took the test to below the required 95 percent.
It's unclear if federal or state officials imposed the restrictions on the testing process, but other states, including Texas, had a large number of schools fail AYP for the same reason.
AYP uses more than 100 factors to determine if a school is showing progress toward the goal of having 100 percent proficiency by 2014. Title I schools — those with a large number of students from low-income families — are held to more scrutiny, and those that fail for more than three years can be restructured.
Some complain that the state is trying to override the federal requirement that special-education students be allowed every accommodation on their individual plans.
"They'll let us use them (calculators) on college tests," Galindo said. "Why can't they let us use them in high school?"
"It's not right to have certain accommodations in high school and then when you take the test, they take it away," said Becerra, who has optic-nerve atrophy.
But some special-education students disagree.
"I'll take the test myself so I can pass it myself without any help," said Shawn Luster, a 17-year-old Desert View senior who has extreme difficulties with math and long essays.
No easy answers
Administrators, including Catalina Foothills School District Superintendent Mary Kamerzell, have blamed the state for the restriction.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, who currently is suing the federal government over guidelines for testing English-language learners, is upset at the accusations.
"At the very time I'm fighting hard against decisions that adversely affect Arizona schools, it's extremely dysfunctional to have the very administrators and teachers I'm fighting for shooting me in the back with false statements," he said.
He said states could not allow certain accommodations in test-taking, such as using calculators, unless all students had access to them, in order to be fair.
"If you let kids use calculators on a test, they'll never learn how to do arithmetic," he said.
Horne recently said that the high school AIMS test has only 2 percent of problems that might require a calculator and that students can guess on those questions and still pass the test.
The issue isn't if special-education students should get special treatment; students and teachers stress all students in public schools should be held accountable. But some ask if it's possible for special-education students to ever pass the same test their unimpaired peers do.
"They want to do it on their own," said John Peak, a special-education teacher at Desert View. "But these kids learn differently, and they're not going to test as well as normal kids. It can't happen."
But Jose Martín, director of the Council of Educators for Students with Disabilities in Austin, Texas, disagrees.
"Instead of offering more accommodations to minimize chances of failing, schools should be working to improving instruction and improving outcomes," he said.
He mentioned the Corpus Christi Independent School District, where teachers are restructuring a math curriculum for special-education students.
"They're trying to turn things around in the classroom instead of wondering how they can make it easier," he said.
Administrators here recognize that a change in instruction could boost test scores, but they say there are some concepts that students with mental or physical disabilities can't fully grasp.
"I think the teachers will still focus on comprehension and problem solving, but I think the accommodations should be provided when appropriate (on tests) given the higher-level math," said Nancy-Sergeant Abbate, director of special-education services in the Catalina Foothills district. The district's usually excelling high school failed to make AYP because 14 special-education students used calculators.
In Colorado, Oregon and Virginia, special-education students are allowed to use calculators, Abbate said.
"The test that they give assesses higher-level math similar to how AIMS is assessed," she said. "If you take algebra or trigonometry, calculators are available for students to do the higher-level problems."
The effects are not just felt at the high school level. At Jefferson Park Elementary, a school that made AYP the past three years, Principal Deborah Anders worries how the public will view her now-failing school.
The state did not count the score of one special-education student who had the test read to her, which put the percent of students tested in that subgroup below the required 95 percent.
Anders suspects parents will see the label and feel the school isn't good enough for their kids.
"We tested 100 percent of our kids. We made sure of that," she said. "We're all frustrated about the perception that we're failing our students."
A peek into Elizabeth Cantroppa's classroom proves otherwise. In here, 10 special-education students ranging in age from 5 to 7 have 10 different disabilities, from Down Syndrome to poor memory retention. Success, Cantroppa claims, can't be judged by a test.
"It's like running a race with someone who has no disabilities, but my kid has a broken leg," she said. "The accommodations are like a crutch, but they still have to run the race."
She points to a couple of students whose age puts them in second grade, though their mental ability is a few years behind.
"You can't expect them to be able to sit down like the other second-graders and take a test," Cantroppa said. "They're not even able to write a whole word without us helping them."
More important than a test to special-education teachers is helping their students learn social skills and feel comfortable being labeled as a student with disabilities, which can affect them their entire school career.
"It sometimes has a negative connotation," Galindo said of being known as a special-education student. "Some of the other guys here think we're dumb. But I'm not dumb."
District administrators are working to hold meetings with state officials to iron out the details regarding the future of special-education assessment.
Martín doesn't think conversation will help, though.
"It's an inevitable friction created by the law," he said. "And it's going to get worse as the standards each year keep getting higher as we move forward to the magical 2014 deadline. It's going to get harder and harder to meet standards."
On StarNet: Find out how local schools did on the AIMS test at azstarnet.com/ education
● Contact reporter Jeff Commings at 573-4191 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.