Virginia's Plan Hurts Special Ed Students

Virginia's Plan Hurts Special Ed Students

State Bar Too High?

What a difference six months make.

Not too long ago, officials with Fairfax County Public Schools were optimistic about the school system's ability to comply with the federally mandated No Child Left Behind Act.

"It will probably affect us very minimally. We already work hard to have every child succeed," said Rima Vesilind, principal of Woodley Hills Elementary, back in August. "We already have individualized lessons because we are so diverse anyway. For us, it would be reaffirming what we are already doing."

But now, with the release of the Virginia Department of Education's No Child Left Behind accountability proposal, that optimism is gone.

"As it stands now, we will fail," said Nancy Sprague, assistant superintendent of instructional services.

THE INTENT of the act is for every public school to have a 100 percent passing rate in reading, math and science by the year 2014. The act allows the individual states to create their own learning standards — for Virginia, the Standards of Learning (SOL) will be used — and establish benchmarks to measure each school's "annual yearly progress." Progress is measured not only schoolwide but also in four subgroups: students with disabilities, those with limited English proficiency, the economically disadvantaged, and minorities, which will be broken down further into individual ethic groups.

In addition, other measures that will be factored in including the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) tests given to samples of fourth-, eighth, and 12th-graders nationally; local English proficiency tests; graduation rates and absenteeism.

Any school that fails to show progress over a two-year period will be considered failing.

Compliance with the act will require Virginia to administer annual SOL tests in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 by the 2005-06 school year and once in so-called "grade spans" 3 through 5, 6 through 9 and 10 through 12 in science by the 2007-08 school year. Therefore, SOL tests in reading and math will have to be created for grades 4, 6 and 7.

Under Virginia's draft proposal, which is due to the federal government by the end of the month, every student will be required to take the SOL tests. The final proposal is due by May 1.

CURRENTLY, under state law, students with limited English proficiency are exempt from their first SOL test to give them the opportunity to learn the language. Students with disabilities only have to take the tests if the tests are required as part of their Individual Education Program, a written plan — created by a team consisting of parents, a special-education teacher, a general-education teacher and the student when appropriate. The Individual Education Program for every student receiving special education services contains information such as the student's special learning needs and the specific special education services required by that student.

"No one is forgiven. That's why we need alternative tests for special education and [limited English] students," Sprague said. "Virginia has chosen not to do that."

Using last year's SOL results, which did not include the exempted limited English and special education students, the state has set the starting targets for the 2002-03 school year at a 60.7 percent pass rate for reading/language arts, 58.4 percent for mathematics, 67.2 percent for a graduation rate and 93.4 percent for the attendance rate, for both schoolwide and for the subgroups reporting. Also under the state's proposal, schools would have to improve to a 70 percent pass rate in reading, mathematics and graduation rates by 2004-05 and 80 percent in all three by 2007-08. The attendance rate does not change until 2007-08, when it increases slightly to 95 percent.

CHARLES PYLE, public information manager for the state Board of Education, said the state board is scheduled to vote on the plan Jan. 28 at a special meeting in Richmond.

"This is a draft developed as a plan to implement this law and get achievable benchmarks to be in compliance with the law," Pyle said. "There will be discussion about and will focus on the benchmarks."

Officials with the county school system are concerned the draft plan will accomplish just the opposite and is setting all school systems up to fail.

"They're using last year's scoring and kids in special education didn't take the tests, so they're not in the norming scores," said Alice Farling, assistant superintendent of special services.

Pyle said that plan would not force students in special education to take the tests if they are not called for in the IEP.

Another problem the local officials see are the subgroups themselves. Under the state's plan, there must be at least 30 individuals in the subgroup for it to be included for accountability purposes and five individuals in the subgroup for it to be included for reporting purposes.

In cases, where a school does not have a large subgroup population, the testing requirement could in effect identify those students, said School Board member Jane Strauss (Dranesville).

Sprague said that students will also be counted in each subgroup he or she can be identified with.

"For instance, a student whose ethnicity is Hispanic, who has an IEP, is [limited English] and on free and reduced lunch, would be counted in each of these subgroups for reporting purposes," Sprague said.

To make the act's accountability requirement, 95 percent of each subgroup must participate in each measurable objective.

"IEP students are not required to take the SOLs, so we won't make the participation requirement, which means all schools will fail," Sprague said.

Schools Superintendent Daniel Domenech said the state is setting the bar too high at the beginning, saying that five other states have already received approval from the federal government with plans more generous than Virginia's.

"If you look at what other states have submitted and been approved for, our state doesn't have to submit what it has drafted," he said.