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Article of Interest - Education

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Bridges4Kids LogoSeverely Disabled Students Get Own Rules
by Ben Feller, The Associated Press, December 3, 2003
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WASHINGTON (AP) - Students with the most severe learning disabilities can be held to standards designed just for them rather than those used for classmates, which could ease pressure on schools struggling to make yearly progress, Education Department officials said Wednesday.

A new department rule to be announced within days would affect only those students deemed to have "significant cognitive disabilities'' by their states. Those students would be tested against standards appropriate for their intellectual development and, significantly, their scores would be counted as part of their school's performance.

Under current rules, students who take tests based on different standards can't be considered "proficient,'' which penalizes schools as they add up yearly achievement. That's important because schools that receive federal aid for the poor but fail to make adequate yearly progress face increasing sanctions from the government and complaints from the public.

Education Department officials said they tried to find balance, acknowledging a need for different standards in limited cases without eroding school accountability for all students.


The rule does not spell out which children meet the definition of having a significant cognitive disability, leaving that to the states with some narrow limits. The plan also requires that any alternative standards for students must be tied to state academic content.

State leaders and education groups negotiated with department officials for months on the language, part of a long-standing, complex debate over how to fairly test disabled children.

"Schools around the country will not be identified by their states as 'needing improvement' if their students with the most significant disabilities are unable to take the same tests as their peers,'' Education Secretary Rod Paige said. He said the rule also "protects children with disabilities from being wrongly excluded from accountability systems that provide valuable information to parents and educators.''

The rule would apply to no more than 1 percent of students at the state and school district for a given grade - roughly 10 percent of special education students - and states could appeal for a higher amount. Other children could take alternative tests, as they can now, but they would still be held to the same grade- level standards as other students.

Special education advocates want children with disabilities to be included in a system of high standards, said James Wendorf, executive director of the National Center for Learning Disabilities. He generally embraced the rule and said concerns raised about the performance of children in special education should put additional focus on basic quality of education.


"The vast majority of students with disabilities must be included,'' he said. "But we also must make sure that the schools are providing the kind of instruction and support so that all kids can reach that proficient level. It's doable.''

By 2005-06, all states must test students in grades three though eight in math and reading annually and at least once during high school. The No Child Left Behind law of 2002 also requires a science test at least once in elementary, middle and high school by 2007-08.

Overall, the law aims to ensure all children are proficient in reading and math by 2014.

    

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