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. "They don't want kids in special education when it's not appropriate," Schwartzbeck says. "They want to make sure everyone there is getting challenged."
Nice idea but she adds that some children might be borderline cognitively disabled, so the question is: What to do with them? How to test them?
Schwartzbeck says IEPs will have to answer the needs of children as they are learning. "We're building the plane as we're flying," she says, making an analogy to the regulations. "There are certain goals they meet as a child, but they're not at the same level as a regular child."
And that can lead to the number one red flag every new teacher learns: If you push children too far, too fast, they will get discouraged and frustrated and not want to learn. "There is still a sense it's set up to make a school fail," Schwartzbeck says. "However, everyone is buckling down and doing it."
But it definitely affects some districts more than others, depending on the number of special education kids. The very large and urban districts are affected most because they have more children in subgroups, such as poor, minority and special education, Schwartzbeck says.
Asking for a Happy Medium
Overall, however, the law does more good than harm for special needs children, according to Jane Browning, executive director of the Learning Disabilities Association of America. LDAA, the Council for Exceptional Children's Division for Learning Disabilities, International Dyslexia Association, and the National Center for Learning Disabilities created a joint statement touting the benefits of No Child Left Behind. The law not only expects more of students who need more attention and support, but it also finds weaknesses early in children who might otherwise go through years of schooling without getting proper extra attention that special education provides.
"One percent is a pretty arbitrary number but I don't think 1 percent will apply to children with learning disabilities," Browning says. Those special education children can be helped and can improve, she says.
In late March, several chief state school officers as well as Washington state superintendent Terri Bergeson and Mary Alice Heuschel, deputy superintendent of Washington state, met with members of the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige to request changes in the regulations. Heuschel has previously served on the Brain Trust, a group of 18 people who worked on and provided input to developing regulations in No Child before the law was finalized. The Brain Trust made some arguments for regulations then that they are now still trying to get into the law, Heuschel says.
"I totally support and agree that we need accountability for our special education learner kids," Heuschel says. "But the measure for holding us accountable is unfair. Let's come up with a fair way to do it."
Among the ideas that superintendents want include creating a separate measure for calculating progress for a special education group of children. "We want to either have the Office of Special Education Programs or individual states to develop guidelines to establish standards that kids should make based on accountability ... and measure their success based on those standards," Heuschel says. "If we can get flexibility, appropriate guidance for setting high standards ... the success should count."
There is still a perception among officials at the federal level that states want to "get off the hook" and not push students to their potential, she says. But this would only be fair to students who cannot meet certain standards. Under the proposed, more appropriate standards, those special needs children would make adequate yearly progress, she predicts.
In Washington alone, 23 of the 296 school districts would have made adequate yearly progress this year were it not for the special education and English Language Learners requirements under No Child now, she says.
"The law is supposed to help but unintended consequences are not a good way to motivate improvement," Heuschel says.
Heuschel notes that special needs children in fourth, seventh, and eighth grade in Washington have made "phenomenal gains" in reading and math over the past few years and "we're working hard to make sure this doesn't destroy that."
Separate from Heuschel's request, the states of West Virginia, Oklahoma and Utah are looking for similar changes for certain groups of special needs children.
In West Virginia, deputy state superintendent Steven Paine says his office is working with experts at the U.S. Education Department to develop a third assessment which would be targeted for children with lesser cognitive abilities. Aside from the 1 percent of children with most severe cognitive disabilities, the rest of the students must take the West Virginia Educational Standards Test under No Child. But Paine and others want to ensure that the children with moderate cognitive disabilities take a more appropriate grade-level test to more accurately assess the proficiencies of those children.
For example, some children might be two grade levels below in reading proficiency, he says. They want to ensure there is an accurate tool to measure that group of children's progress relative to the grade level objectives. Under this "third assessment" in the works, children would still have to master the same content and grade level objectives, he says, but there would be a more accurate means of identifying their specific levels of proficiency. For example, test questions themselves might be modified so the special education student can better understand them to answer them. And there might be three or four selections for answers, instead of five, so it's easier for the child to find the correct answer, Paine says.
"I think this has emerged probably within the last [three months] in terms of identifying how we can more accurately assess children in the state, to identify children who really need our attention," Paine says. "I think ... part of the challenge of No Child Left Behind is to make sure you are very accurately and reliably identifying schools that need improvement, to crystallize our thinking, and making sure all kids are succeeding."
Sticking to IEP
In Oklahoma for the past three years, the state has offered .04 percent of school children an alternative assessment because they were severely cognitive impaired. But the state's special education children comprise more than 1 percent of the school population, according to Kay Ruelle, recently retired assistant superintendent in the Office of Accountability and Assessment for the Oklahoma Department of Education.
The test for the .04 percent involved more life skills assessments and included videotapes and portfolios of student work which was time intensive. And the regular test was too difficult for some special education children who weren't qualified for the alternative test.
Now, the state is working on developing and extending the alternative assessment to include more students who are more impaired.
Ruelle says some children can be pulled up with rigorous attention.
A learning disabled child, who comprise the largest percentage of kids in special education, is a child with average intelligence and functioning but who has some cognitive processing disorder relevant to reading or math. Those children can be pulled up for the most part with intensive early identification and early intervention, usually in the kindergarten level, Ruell says. But then there are students who are developmentally delayed or have multiple cognitive disabilities or who are extremely below normal intelligence ranges who will "never make it into the regular curriculum" but who can be challenged to their level of abilities, Ruell says.
Under the newest change in the law that allows waivers over 1 percent, Oklahoma students will have a better chance, says Cindy Koss, assistant superintendent in the Office of Standards and Curriculum in the Oklahoma education department. The out-of-level assessment will meet the student needs based on their IEPs, Koss says. "I think it's a complex issue," she says. "Certainly, we'll have a better idea after the test is administered [in April] to see how this works because this is a different category for students and we want something more appropriate for them. I think this is giving us more flexibility than we had. We think this will be helping students."
Utah Rep. Kory Holdaway, a Republican, tried passing a resolution in the state's House of Representatives in March, but ran out of time. Due to the House support, however, he sent a letter, signed by more than 60 members of the House, to Paige specifically listing some problems Utah has with No Child.
"If you look at every child meeting grade-level expectations by 2014 ... by definition of special education, they will not meet ... adequate yearly progress," he says. "They have unique needs. Not every child has the same ability l
evel and because of the different ability levels, each child will never be able to meet some of the same expectations that someone with an average IQ can."
Angela Pascopella is features editor.