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 Article of Interest - Testing

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Testing must include disabled
Federal law requires state to include special-education students to show it is being accountable for all pupils.
by Sarah Tully, The Orange County Register, June 13, 2003
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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 student.

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 sense.

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 2-year-old.

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 federal funding.

"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 students.

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 federal rules.

"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 test.

"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 daily.

"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 inflated scores.

"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 research.

Test participation

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 Braille.

Now, all students are expected to be included:

  • Students who are physically capable are supposed to take the regular exams, like California Standards Tests, rather than special tests chosen by the district.

  • 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.

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