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