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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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."