by Claudette Riley and Diane Long, The Tennessean,
October 29, 2003
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holding special ed kids to the same standards as everybody else
is a step forward, but critics say it makes no sense.
It produces dumbfounded stares and sighs of frustration. Yes,
special education students now have to take regular tests.
And the kicker? They are expected to do just as well as students
without the same problems.
''It just seems to be fundamentally unfair to give children an
impossible test to take,'' said U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, a Democrat
from Nashville. ''There's no way for them to succeed.''
Under No Child Left Behind, nearly all special education
students have to take the same tests as others their age. And
they are all expected to score on par with their peers by
2013-14. Only 1% are allowed to take alternative tests designed
to measure the progress of students with little or no academic
''It's not fair to have any child take this test on their grade
level when everyone knows they don't perform on grade level,''
said Donna Parker, supervisor of special education for Wilson
County. ''It's very frustrating for a lot of the students.''
Advocates of the law admit they are asking a lot but argue that
if they don't require students to be tested, they won't know how
they are doing.
They also contend that the bulk of the nation's 6.5 million
special education students are capable of taking and passing
achievement tests. In fact, they say, special education numbers
are bloated by kids who don't really need to be there because
they often just have a small learning problem that can be
''The reality is that for too long, we haven't expected enough
and we've made too many excuses that these kids cannot learn,''
said Robert Pasternack, the U.S. Department of Education's
assistant secretary for special education. ''Some people are
saying 'Oooh, we don't want to include those kids in our
measurement standards,' and that's nonsense. That's not fair to
the kids. That's not fair to the parents. That's not fair to the
people who are paying the bills.
''What's fair is to see our kids making progress,'' he said.
Some educators agree that raising expectations could pay off if
it forces schools to improve the way they teach special
education students, which could in turn produce more graduates
who can hold down jobs, pay taxes, and pursue their interests.
But others worry that because schools are now evaluated on how
well they educate different groups of students, those that miss
benchmarks because of special education students will be
''We're already seeing it,'' said Holly Lu Conant Rees, a
special education advocate and mother of a 20-year-old son with
severe disabilities. ''Instead of No Child Left Behind, it kind
of feels like 'Our child shoved aside.' ''
Feeling the pressure
Robert Wilson worries a little about dragging down his school's
overall achievement scores, but mostly he just dreads tests
It's one of the times he doesn't feel like every other kid. He
feels weird. Out of place. Abnormal.
''When I am still taking the test and I see people get up, it
makes me want to finish up and hurry. It takes me a while to
process anything,'' said Robert, 16, who has an
attention-deficit disorder. ''I hear noises and I look. I feel
worried that I'm not going to get all the answers right.''
A talented artist and golfer at Nashville School of the Arts, he
wants to go to college and doesn't mind putting in the work. He
comes home from school every night, plops down at the dining
room table and does homework for four or five hours just to keep
But he says it's a waste if he can't pass the Gateway exit exam
in algebra, which is necessary for graduation and one of the
ways NCLB measures student progress in high school.
He got an A in the class but because he struggles to pass the
test, he may never get a diploma.
''I feel really sad, really different and hurt because all the
hard work got kicked to the curb,'' said Robert, who worries
that he can't get into Savannah College of Art and Design
without a diploma.
If students like Robert are struggling with tests, what's it
like for students with more severe disabilities like mental
retardation or autism?
Educators point out that students can only be in special
education if they're lagging behind their peers and need some
type of help that they can't necessarily get in a regular
''There are a significant number of children out there that
truly have processing problems,'' said Joseph Fisher, assistant
commissioner of special education for the state Department of
Education. ''It's unfair for children with disabilities to have
to meet the same standards as all children.''
One of the loudest complaints about the new law is that it seems
to have a different philosophy from the Individuals with
Disabilities Education Act, the trailblazing federal law passed
in 1975 that champions meeting the specific needs of each child.
''We've spent all these years believing that we need to address
the individual needs of students, but that's been pushed aside
somehow,'' said Wilson County's Parker, who is also president of
the Tennessee Association of Special Education Administrators.
''There could be times when the child's needs would not
correlate with the requirements of testing.''
State Education Commissioner Lana Seivers, a former speech
pathologist and the mother of an adult son with severe
disabilities, said she supports high but realistic goals.
''These kids need to be measured based on their own abilities,
their own plan. It doesn't mean lower expectations,'' she said.
''Just because you have a label doesn't mean you can't take a
But will schools be able to keep expectations high for all
students and still help 100% of them graduate with a regular
diploma? Find out tomorrow.
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