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Special ed students skew test results

Nevada Appeal Staff Reports
Special education instructor Michelle Harper, left, works on math problems with Erika Rodriguez at White Mountain Middle School in Eagle Point, Ore., Oct. 28, 2003. Parents and teachers of special education students have fought hard for funding and for students to be mainstreamed and now the new law, dubbed No Child Left Behind, has turned more attention onto special education because of the resulting consequences for all segments of public schools. The federal law mandates that schools bring all students up to grade level on reading and math standardized tests, including special education students and those who don't speak English.(AP Photo/Don Ryan)
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EAGLE POINT, Ore. – The kids in Michelle Harper’s special education class have their own small victories every day – a temper tantrum stifled, two words rhymed.

When it comes time to take the standardized tests that the federal government uses to measure public schools, many of Harper’s students at White Mountain Middle School merely pick answers at random, not realizing the potentially severe consequences for their school.

Across the country this year, thousands of schools were deemed “failing” because of the test performance of special ed students.

Carson High School was among them. Although the school passed as a whole, the special education population failed to make the adequate yearly progress mark.

The results have provoked feelings of fury, helplessness and amusement in teachers like Harper, who say that because of some of their students’ disabilities, there is no realistic way to ever meet the expectations of a new federal law backed by the Bush administration that requires that 99 percent of all children be performing at or above grade level by 2014.

If schools fail to meet those targets, they risk being taken over by the state or private companies; teachers can lose their jobs.

“These children are going to plateau at a certain level – that is the nature of a disability,” said Harper, who teaches students with autism, learning disabilities, mental retardation, Tourette’s syndrome, vision and hearing deficiencies and brain injuries. “These kids are not going to grow out of it, not going to grow up and be OK. It’s sad, but that is the way it is.”

Special education has been a battleground for years. Parents of special ed students fought long and hard for their children to be included in mainstream classrooms, and for the money to provide them with extra help.

Now the new law, dubbed No Child Left Behind, has focused even more attention on special education, because of the consequences for entire schools.

The law mandates that schools bring all groups of students up to grade level on standardized reading and math tests, including special ed students and those who do not speak English. If even one of those groups fails to meet progress targets for two years in a row, an entire school can be listed as failing and face an escalating list of sanctions.

In Carson City, seven of the district’s nine schools were classified as failing, although each met the standards schoolwide. Across Nevada, about 30 percent of the schools did not make adequate yearly progress.

In South Carolina, more than three-fourths of schools were listed as failing. Sandra Lindsay, the state’s deputy education secretary, said special education was the most common denominator.

In Nashville, Tenn., schools director Pedro Garcia called it “ludicrous, to give a (special ed) student a test that they cannot read or understand, much less know the answer.”

In Oregon, 202 schools reported that their special education students had failed to make the desired progress in reading; 181 said that was true for math.

The government is defending the special education portion of the law, though officials said some changes are in the works that would give more leeway to the most seriously disabled children and their teachers.

However, the Education Department does not want to let all special education students and their teachers off the hook, said Ronald Tomalis, acting assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.

“There have been low expectations for some of these children all along,” he said. “And that’s not because of mental abilities, but because of poor instruction received in the early grades. We need to challenge schools that these children can achieve. Sure, they will need an intensive program, but they can be brought up to grade level.”