One Test for All? States Leaders Debate the Validity of Testing Some Special Needs Children on Par with Average Students. Does NCLB Unfairly Prescribe

By Pascopella, Angela | District Administration, May 2004 | Go to article overview

One Test for All? States Leaders Debate the Validity of Testing Some Special Needs Children on Par with Average Students. Does NCLB Unfairly Prescribe


Pascopella, Angela, District Administration


In decades past, many children in special education could have been coddled and excused from being pushed mentally and academically.

But now, most people would agree that every child's talents and academic potential should be cultivated and stretched to its highest limit.

But when it comes to children with special needs, many educators believe that by definition of "special needs," some are just not going to perform on grade-level with their peers. And the federal government is saying, "Wrong."

After two years of existence, the federal No Child Left Behind act has drawn great opposition due in part to its requirement that all children be proficient. Specifically, leaders in a few states are asking Congress to ensure that certain children with cognitive disabilities be excused from taking a regular annual test and instead take an alternate test that would better gauge how much the particular student should and could know by a certain time.

The federal government already changed a regulation under the law in December, allowing up to 1 percent of all special education children with the most severe cognitive disabilities to take an alternate test. The original regulations allowed only one half a percent of those kids to take the alternative.

But some educators and state leaders had complained that 1 percent was not good enough because many districts have more than 1 percent of school children with severe cognitive disabilities and they will never be proficient under regular testing guidelines. So in March, the government gave states even more flexibility by allowing them to seek exemptions to the 1 percent cap on the number of proficient scores from alternate assessments that may be included to determine adequate yearly progress. The district must prove how more than 1 percent of all students in the district's tested grades have the most significant cognitive disabilities.

Waivers and Complications

But at least one expert says the upgrade only creates more complications. If a district applies for a waiver, claiming, say, 3 percent of its children need an alternative test, it will put the entire state over its 1 percent limit. "The state would also have to get a waiver," says Terri Duggan Schwartzbeck, policy analyst with American Association of School Administrators. "The process is more complicated. It's sort of a catch-22."

Many districts are not making adequate yearly progress under No Child simply because their special needs students are failing reading and math tests taken with their peers, experts say. When a subgroup, such as special education children, fails to reach adequate yearly progress, the entire school is labeled and flagged. And it only exacerbates the problem, creating low morale among staff and teachers and alarming parents who might yank their children out of neighborhood schools and send them to a better performing school elsewhere in the district, educators say.

What is especially frustrating to educators is the near ignorance of the Individualized Education Program that educators have created for every special needs child and which is approved by the teachers, parents and school principal. The plan is specific to every child's needs and challenges, while a one-test-for-all under No Child is anything but, some educators say.

"I think there is great frustration over kids having to meet these standards at all," Schwartzbeck says. "And they are frustrated going outside of the IEP. Educators are very well set on the idea that IEP trumps everything."

Schwartzbeck says under the newest regulation, any number of children with special needs can take the alternate test, but only 1 percent of the school's population would count. The remaining scores on the alternative test would not be considered proficient, putting the entire school at risk for not making adequate yearly progress. This is the federal government's way of ensuring that schools don't make it too easy for some children with special needs in allowing them to take an easier test and making sure they push some children to their utmost potential, she says. …

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