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43 Schools On Warning List
Some State Educators Decry Testing For Special Education Students

January 27, 2005
By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer

Of 43 Connecticut school districts named Wednesday on a federal academic warning list, nearly half were cited because of low test scores by special education students.

In announcing which districts failed to make adequate progress under the government's No Child Left Behind Act, state officials questioned the law's rules for testing special education students and said the requirements are unfair to some students and school districts.

About a quarter of the state's public school systems were cited for inadequate progress on annual reading and mathematics tests. The list includes some historically high-performing districts such as West Hartford, Trumbull and New Milford - all cited for low special education scores.

"You're identifying a whole district based on the performance of [one] group," said Chip Ward, a senior planner for West Hartford schools. "I think it's a confusing message to parents and community leaders."

The latest list also includes the state's major urban districts such as Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven, all of which have struggled for years with high poverty rates and low overall test scores.

No Child Left Behind, the centerpiece of President Bush's school reform agenda, calls for a shake-up of schools that don't make adequate progress. A school or district can be cited if even one group of students - such as members of a minority group, special education students or children from low-income families - fails to meet standards.

The law has focused attention on specific groups that have generally not performed well in reading and mathematics, but educators and parents across the nation have struggled with the question of how the law should apply to special education students, especially those with severe learning problems.

"These kids are not on grade level, so why are we making them take these tests?" said Nancy Dennin, whose son David, now 28, has Down syndrome. He went through the Trumbull public schools and functions at a reasonably high level, she said.

But, said Dennin, a math teacher in New Canaan, "There's no way David could have passed an on-grade test."

To comply with No Child Left Behind, Connecticut must test most special education students at their grade level even when educators believe those tests are "inappropriate, ineffective and unfair," Education Commissioner Betty J. Sternberg wrote recently to newly appointed U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings.

Sternberg asked Spellings to allow Connecticut flexibility to give some special education students tests below their grade level - a practice that has been used in the past. She has not received a reply, and U.S. Department of Education officials were unavailable for comment Wednesday.

Connecticut has also given an alternative life skills test to its most severely disabled students, but the federal government has asked the state to rewrite that test to include more academic material, Sternberg said. "They're asking us to do something that just makes no sense."

Sternberg said it is unfair to label districts "solely due to the [test] scores of special education students who may be receiving excellent and effective services but are being tested inappropriately."

Most of the school districts named Wednesday are on the list for the second year in a row and will be required to submit an improvement plan within 90 days, reserve 10 percent of federal Title I funds for teacher training and inform parents that the district has been found "in need of improvement."

Tammy Exum, a West Hartford mother of a special education student, said she is bracing herself for the official letter to parents explaining how special education students landed West Hartford on the academic warning list.

It's like being told "we would have passed if it wasn't for you guys," said Exum. "Parents are sensitive and they are easily hurt."

Overall, Exum said she has conflicted feelings about No Child Left Behind. She applauds a law that requires school districts to set high standards for special education students. "These children are capable, but they do learn differently," she said.

But Exum said special education students are such a diverse group - with a range of physical, social, emotional or intellectual needs - that it is unrealistic to expect them to pass the same standardized test. "I do not think [federal lawmakers] really thought it out properly," she said.

The 43 school systems on this year's statewide list are less than half the number cited a year ago, but part of the reason for the decrease is a change in the way the state identifies low-performing schools. Last year, districts could be cited for failing to meet testing standards either in elementary and middle schools or in high schools. This year, districts must fail in both categories in order to be listed.

In addition, 27 districts were cited last year only because they failed to meet a requirement to test at least 95 percent of eligible students, but this year, schools were allowed to consider average participation over a three-year period, and no district was cited solely for inadequate participation.

Courant staff writers Carolyn Moreau and Jim Farrell contributed to this story.

Related: Districts Not Meeting No Child Left Behind Standards

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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