A Test of Integrity

Schools are caught in a trap between doing what's right for their special students, and complying with the law

One boy is counting pictures of cats. Another rocks on the nearby couch, bending over a pillow on his lap. Later, the students go over their homework assignments: asking each other what they ate for dinner the night before and how they "helped" at home. Chad McNamara and Sue Gerecke's classroom looks familiar - small groups of students working on puzzles, and matching shapes. But this classroom is at Jay High School, and the students are all 14-18 years old. They are all special education students - all victims of conflicting federal legislation that might cost their schools federal funding.

The problem boils down to two conflicting laws: The Individuals With Disabilities Act that says that students with disabilities must be tested in accordance with their abilities, and the No Child Left Behind Act that requires all students to take a state-standardized test - even if they are mentally retarded. Since the laws clash, schools are put in a difficult spot between doing what is best for their disabled students, or complying with the law. And what's worse, NCLB penalizes schools, stating that 95 percent of a school's students must pass state tests to receive federal funding. But in Texas, nearly 12 percent of students are classified with disabilities - and there are very limited provisions that exempt them from standard testing.

For special education teachers, the requirements are "a bureaucratic thing that's dumped on them."
— Don Moecker
The penalties for a failing school are severe. Schools must pay to transfer students to other schools with better performance records - sending their federal funding with them. Failing schools must also pay for outside tutoring, and after several years, must relinquish control of the school to outside authorities.

In some states, schools have chosen not to accept the funding, because the 95 percent passing goal is so unrealistic. Even regular students can't pass the test at that level: In Texas, 33 percent of 4th graders passed the math test, while 27 percent passed the reading test, according to the Texas Report Card recently released by Quality Counts in a report issued by the trade newspaper, Education Week.

The numbers are more dismal when special education students are added to the testing pool. Dr. Patrick Teicher, assistant superintendent of Student Services at the Northside Independent School District, describes the situation that NCLB creates: "It's imposing targets for school performance that are impossible to meet ... The NCLB act says that all but 1 percent of the `special education` student population in any school district must meet the same grade level standards as all of the other students." But in reality, Teicher explains, about 40 to 60 percent of special education students can't pass a test at grade level. At NISD, these statistics mean that from 4,400 to 6,660 students could not - under any circumstance - pass the TAKS test. It's a structural problem that almost guarantees their school will fail.

Amazingly, NCLB punishes schools that have exceptional special education programs. For districts like Northside, it's a catch-22, explains Don Moecker, program director of special education for secondary schools. Known for its special education curriculum, Northside attracts families with special-needs children, many of who move to the district to be near the Medical Center. NISD also includes military families who ask to be transferred to nearby bases to take advantage of the school district and the services. In supporting quality special education programs, the district increases its percentage of special education students - which may translate into poor overall scores for the schools.

So far, the problem hasn't trickled down to the teachers in the classroom; McNamara and Gerecke's students continue to work on basic life skills, like brushing their teeth, and learning how to make themselves grilled cheese sandwiches. The boys who were practicing counting to nine, and matching color blocks didn't take the TAKS test on February 24.

For special education teachers, the requirements are "a bureaucratic thing that's dumped on them. It's really taking control away from the experts who know about this child," explains Moecker.

Congress is working to eliminate the gray area left by the intersection of NCLB and IDEA. A bill to renew funding for IDEA is in the House Subcommittee on Education Reform, and many predict it will stay there until after the election cycle. The proposed bill would still require special education students to take tests on grade level, but might compromise and allow them to take special versions. It would also call for a pre-referral intervention process designed to stop teachers from funneling problem students into special education, instead allowing the students to stay in regular classrooms, with support from specially trained educators. But until the law is finalized, Northside and other other districts will continue to use specialized testing for its special education students. As Teicher explains: "We are going to continue to use the alternative assessment in Texas - even though right now it is in limbo - because it's the right thing to do." •

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