must include disabled
Federal law requires state to include
special-education students to show it is being accountable for
by Sarah Tully, The Orange County Register, June 13,
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A tough new
federal law is forcing the state to test all of its
special-education students and make their scores part of an
accountability system intended to measure the progress of every
The new testing is a response to states like California, which
have allowed districts to exclude special- education students
from test scores that determine which schools receive cash
rewards for meeting goals or are labeled failing. One in five
California children previously were not counted in the state's
accountability program, including disabled children.
But the new federal testing has some Orange County educators and
parents saying the tests won't help kids and often make little
A 14-year-old girl, for instance, was asked to point out animals
among eight pictures she was shown.
But the girl is blind.
A sixth-grader was told to point to the first letter of his
name, even though the 15-year-old can't read.
Both Orange County children function at or below the level of a
The federal No Child Left Behind law is an attempt to ensure
that schools are trying to help every child - and are held
responsible for failing to do so. Students at some failing
schools, for instance, are allowed to transfer to other schools
and get outside tutoring if their school doesn't meet test-score
goals. Eventually, some schools can be taken over or lose
"Just because you are in special education doesn't mean you
can't meet high standards. Schools should be accountable for all
students," said Christine Wolfe, policy director in the U.S.
Office of the Undersecretary of Education.
Special-education students must take the regular tests or the
California Alternate Performance Assessment (CAPA), the state's
first uniform test for special education.
Up to 58,000 students took the CAPA, including the two in the
examples above, out of about 675,000 special-education students
statewide. In most large Orange County districts, between 100
and 200 students took the CAPA.
But some students are still slipping through loopholes.
In Saddleback Valley, about 75 of the 150 eligible students
didn't take the CAPA because their parents signed waivers. In
Anaheim Union, some students were physically unable to take the
test, so the district is submitting blank sheets.
"We're expecting to get dinged for that," said Mary Dalessi,
research and evaluation coordinator of Anaheim Union. "I'm the
first to admit we didn't give it to everyone. We tested as many
as was appropriate."
Although districts got around the law's intent, they are unsure
whether there will be consequences. For now, the law requires at
least 95 percent of students be tested for a school to make its
goals. Each group, such as special-education students, must meet
goals for the school to succeed.
The CAPA is unlike the traditional standardized test in which
students fill in bubbles for multiple-choice questions. Instead,
a teacher asks students one-on-one to complete a series of
tasks. For example, teacher Jacki Lawrence at Santa Ana's Muir
Fundamental asked her students to make patterns with blocks,
point to days on a calendar and name nutritious foods.
But some educators and parents say the test is unsuitable.
Larry Belkin, chief of Orange County Department of Education's
special education, helped a group of educators protest.
"I'd support an assessment system that gives data back to
improve the instructional program for kids," Belkin said. "(CAPA
is) demeaning and a waste of time."
While the test seems illogical for some students - deaf students
having questions read to them, for instance - state officials
say their hands are tied, while federal officials say they
needed a standard test that could be given to all disabled
But because of the difficulty of creating a single such test,
the federal government is now proposing that the law exempt the
most severely disabled children from testing.
In the meantime, state officials say educators should realize
the test's limitations. They say teachers should stop
administering the test to students who can't physically complete
answers. Some alterations are allowed, like enlarging pictures.
Still, state officials currently have little leeway under
"In some cases, we're asking adults to apply common sense," said
Geno Flores, state deputy superintendent.
Some parents prefer to keep their children out of the exam,
saying their children are already tested too much.
Sharry Graham of Saddleback Valley said she opted out two of her
children because she didn't feel they would learn anything from
"The information they are going to get is not worth the academic
time they are going to lose," Graham said.
Despite concerns, local educators say they welcome some
accountability of special-education students' progress. In 2001,
11 of 27 Orange County districts had at least half their
special-education students left out of the district score.
"There's a feeling of, wow, now everybody is included," said Liz
Krogsdale, program specialist in Irvine, where 80 percent of
special-education students were included.
Lawrence, the Santa Ana teacher, said the test can show if her
students need to work on skills. For example, she was surprised
that fourth-grader Felix Cequeda was unable to identify "today,"
"tomorrow" and "yesterday" on a calendar – a task the class does
"It's part of the whole trend of accountability and,
historically, special education hasn't had a lot of
accountability, like regular education," Lawrence said. "I
personally think it's a good thing about the test."
In the past, test scores sometimes left out the lowest-scoring
students – roughly 5 percent to 8 percent in Orange County in
recent years – through special-education rules, which could have
"What the attempt is, is to make sure there is not a way to
circumvent the system, so that all kids are held accountable,"
said Phil Morse, administrative director of assessment and
The No Child Left Behind law has changed the way
special-education students are tested - tests to ensure that
schools are held accountable for every child's education.
Previously, some districts were found to include few of their
special-education students, whose scores are often lower than
other students' and thus can lower how a district is perceived.
Those students were left out when:
Their individual education plans
exempted them because of their disabilities.
They took the test with special
rules, called nonstandard accommodations, such as extra time or
Now, all students are expected to
Students who are physically capable
are supposed to take the regular exams, like California
Standards Tests, rather than special tests chosen by the
Some special circumstances are
allowed, and the results are now included in scores.
Severely disabled students can take
the California Alternate Performance Assessment, CAPA. Up to 1
percent of all students can be proficient on the alternate test
under proposed federal rules.