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 Article of Interest - Education

Federal rules will put special-ed students, Florida schools to test
By Lori Horvitz, Sentinel Staff Writer, December 1, 2002
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New federal education rules will force Florida to do what it has never done: penalize public schools when special-education students fail to make acceptable gains on statewide tests.

As a result, the state could see a marked increase in the number of failing schools, particularly those teetering between flunking and passing.

The rules are part of President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, which requires all students in gradesthree through eight to take tests designed by the states.

Test results must show schools are making progress toward a 100 percent proficiency rate in reading and math for all students, including those with disabilities, within 12 years.

A school will be identified as failing when students in any group -- black, Hispanic, low-income, special education or those with limited English -- fail to close the achievement gap on tests for two consecutive years.

States also must report how students in each group are performing on tests from year to year. Those that don't comply with the rules could lose millions of dollars in federal aid.

"Only if we hold schools and school districts accountable for the improved achievement of all students will we meet the goal of leaving no child behind and ensure that every child learns," U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige said last week after issuing a summary of the rules.

How Florida will handle the requirements is unclear. State education officials could not be reached for comment on the federal rules.

Many special-education advocates are cheering the changes. They said such a system would ensure equality for special-education students because it will force schools to make sure these children are learning more each year.

"Accountability needs to focus more on the teachers and the schools than on the students," said Karen Clay, a Tampa advocate for special-education children. "If they are teaching and students are learning, that progress must be reported. If students are not learning, that must be reported. It's not the student's fault, but it's the student who ultimately pays the price."

Coincidentally, the rules also would address concerns of some observers that Florida has been moving large numbers of struggling students into special-education classes so their scores on the state test cannot be used to hurt school grades.

Ahead of the pack

Although many states are scrambling to meet the federal requirements, Florida launched its statewide test in 1998. Under Gov. Jeb Bush's A-Plus Plan for Education, the state began using the test to assess school performance the following year.

The majority of students in special-education programs take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, but their scores do not count when the state grades the schools.

Also, the Florida Department of Education does not report the progress -- or lack of progress -- that schools are making with all special-education students.

Schools that receive A's based on test results or see their grades increase by at least one letter on the A-to-F scale earn bragging rights and big cash awards. The money often goes for computers, library books and staff bonuses.

Opponents of the system say it is designed to segregate special-education students.

"We have a huge discrimination issue as far as setting up an incentive for teachers to teach to the test for some students and ignore the results of other students," said Laura Whiteside, an attorney from Tampa with the Advocacy Center for Persons with Disabilities.

"Typically, the lower-performing students are not assigned to certain classes because the preference is to have the high scorers in your class. It's totally a trap for children with disabilities."

Since the Legislature approved the governor's standards in 1999, school districts have increased the numbers of students whose test scores are excluded from calculations.

In the past four years, the number of students in special-education programs has grown by 16 percent while the number of students enrolled in public schools has grown by 9 percent.

The percentage of black fourth-graders included in the formula used to grade schools has declined from 88 percent to 81 percent since 1999. More Hispanic and low-performing white students were moved into special classes, too.

No numbers on impact

Gov. Bush has said the movement of students into special-education programs has had little impact on test scores. It's impossible to figure out how the student shift has affected school grades because the DOE has yet to release the numbers.

But available figures show special-education students failing the FCAT at more than three times the rate of students in regular classes. Counting their scores could have a depressing effect on the grades awarded to many schools.

Sixty-eight of Florida's 2,515 public schools flunked in the latest ranking released in June. Fifty-six percent of schools received an A or B.

Florida officials have talked about having two separate accountability systems -- reporting test scores for all students to satisfy the federal requirements and continuing to exclude scores for some students when grading schools.

A state panel appointed by the governor in April to look at these issues has a different idea -- one school-grading system that includes all students, consistent with federal rules.

Many accommodations permitted for disabled students under state and federal laws are forbidden for the FCAT. If they want regular diplomas, blind students must be able to take the test in Braille. Students with learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, must be able to read long passages.

The committee, made up of educators, parents and advocates for the disabled, favors setting up alternative assessments for disabled students who cannot pass the conventional paper-and-pencil FCAT. But until those can be devised, the group is urging the state to hold off on grading schools based on test scores.

State review on Dec. 10

The panel's recommendations are outlined in a report expected to go before the Florida Board of Education on Dec. 10.

Jill Bratina, a Bush spokeswoman, said the governor is "committed to expanding accommodations for disabled students." However, as of last week, Bush still had not seen the recommendations, she said.

The U.S. Department of Education is considering another rule that would allow states to develop different achievement standards for students with the most severe mental impairments. However, no more than 0.5 percent of all disabled students in the state could be included in this group.

The governor has taken the position that once Florida figures out how to accommodate students with disabilities for the FCAT, it can figure out how to deal with the federal rules.

No matter how the scores for disabled students are reported or counted, some advocates and parents don't think that including special-education studentsin the state's school-grading process is a good idea.

Terry Tomaka, who works with families with disabled children in Brevard County,said that judging and penalizing schools for the way disabled children perform on any assessment ultimately will come back to haunt the students.

"That child's score is going to be held against that school, and it will bring down the school's grade, which means they won't get the cash awards," Tomaka said. "I don't want parents upset with my son because he's not working at the level where it needs to be."
 

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