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Testing Policy Under Scrutiny

Requirements Upset Some Disabled Students

May 29, 2006
By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer

When her eighth-grade son, who has epilepsy, attempted to take the Connecticut Mastery Test this year at his Bristol middle school, he couldn't read it, Darlene Wojtusik said - and the stress overwhelmed him.

"Every time he walked in to take the test, he would have a seizure," she said. "Finally, I said no more testing until I can get an answer from somebody." She said her son cannot read or write at his grade level.

"How," she asked, "can you give him an eighth-grade test?"

That is exactly the kind of question top-level state education officials are asking about the impact of the pressure-packed annual test on at least a handful of disabled children with serious academic problems.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, those children are required to take the six to seven hours of mastery tests at their actual grade level - tests that parents and educators believe are beyond their ability to comprehend. As in the Bristol case, the results can be distressing.

For example:

In separate incidents, a fifth-grader and a seventh-grader, both special education students, were taken to Natchaug Hospital in Mansfield for psychiatric treatment after becoming enraged during testing at their local schools, a hospital official said.

At the Children's Home of Cromwell, a school for children with behavioral problems, students wrote obscenities in their test booklets and stormed out of a classroom.

In West Hartford, an autistic student broke his eyeglasses in anger last year after taking part of the Connecticut Academic Performance Test, the high school version of the mastery test.

Special education advocates often praise No Child Left Behind for prodding schools to raise standards for students with disabilities, but few aspects of the law have been more controversial than how to test and account for those children.

The law permits alternate tests only for children with the most severe intellectual disabilities, up to 1 percent of all students. Federal officials last year agreed to allow modified tests for another 2 percent with "persistent academic difficulties," but many states, including Connecticut, have yet to develop those tests.

Officials in Connecticut, which is suing the federal government over the cost of No Child Left Behind, say the state has received neither the money nor the guidelines from the federal government to develop modified tests.

In the meantime, those students must take regular tests at their grade levels - a policy drawing criticism from some parents and teachers.

"For my son, it was confronting head-on what he did not know, and he thought he was stupid. ... It took him over the edge," said the mother of the West Hartford boy who broke his glasses.

"I see the validity in testing to see that they're making progress," she said, "but I disagree totally with the [test] they use to measure it."

For years in Connecticut, such students were able to take tests thought to be more in line with their aptitude - an eighth-grader could be given a sixth-grade mastery test, for example - but under the rules of No Child Left Behind, that is no longer allowed.

Under existing rules, some test accommodations are permitted for disabled children, such as Braille, sign language or voice recognition computer software, but each test must be given at a student's actual grade level.

State Education Commissioner Betty J. Sternberg has asked for permission to use the out-of-level tests, but the U.S. Department of Education has denied the request.

"If you have 10th-graders being instructed in sixth-grade math, having them take the 10th-grade test is beyond what they can do," Sternberg said. "It's completely upsetting to them." And, she said, "It doesn't provide any good or meaningful information."

However, Kerri Briggs, senior policy adviser with the federal education department, said, "Out-of-level testing is often associated with lower expectations for students with disabilities, tracking such students into lower-level curriculums with limited opportunities.

"It may also limit student opportunities for advancing to the next grade or graduating with a high school diploma."

Some special education advocates say that No Child Left Behind has put needed pressure on schools that have been too willing to lower standards for special education students or to exempt them altogether from regular testing.

"The point is to put a spotlight on our schools ... and to make parents aware their child isn't progressing on grade level," said Diane Willcutts, a member of the board of directors of the Learning Disabilities Association of Connecticut. "We have had so many decades of not challenging those kids."

Under the pressure of No Child Left Behind, many states, including Connecticut, have sharply increased the number of students with disabilities taking regular annual achievement tests.

The law, the centerpiece of President Bush's school reform agenda, calls for a broad expansion of testing and imposes sanctions on schools that fail to make adequate progress. A school can be hit with sanctions if even a single group of students - such as members of minority groups, children who speak no English or students with disabilities - fails to meet standards.

"If I had to identify one problem with the act, it's the provisions dealing with children with disabilities. ... It comes close to being the No. 1 complaint among school districts," said Jack Jennings of the Center on Education Policy in Washington, D.C., an organization that has studied the impact of No Child Left Behind. "It just doesn't make sense to educators that children with disabilities should be tested as other children are."

Under the rules of the federal law, schools are under pressure to account for all students, including some who might have been exempted or given alternate tests in the past.

When two public school students were sent to Natchaug Hospital for psychiatric treatment after outbursts during testing, school officials asked the hospital to try to get the students to finish the tests, said Jill Bourbeau, the hospital's director of school programs.

"They both strongly said `no' in colorful ways," she said.

Still, she said, schools must find a balance. When many special education students were exempted from testing, "that was unfair to them as well," she said.

In proposed regulations on testing special education students, the U.S. Department of Education says each case must be examined individually but those children deemed eligible for alternate tests "would not simply be students who are having difficulty with grade-level content or who are receiving instruction below grade level."

But who should take regular tests? Who qualifies for modified tests? There are no simple answers, educators say.

"When you're testing special education students at the eighth-grade level, and they're functioning two or three years below grade level, we're not testing what they know," said Susan Smialowski, a special education teacher at Chippens Hill Middle School in Bristol. "They get teary. Some begin to act out [and say], `I have a headache,' `I have a stomach ache.'"

However, she added, excluding students from regular tests should be done only under strict guidelines. "Years ago, I think too many were exempt."

The trick will be how to apply those guidelines on an individual basis without compromising the law's requirement to hold schools to high standards for all children with disabilities.

"Every child is so different, it's really hard to assess what's in the best interest of the child," said Carrie Berman, a West Hartford mother of three, including a third-grade son in special education. Berman's son was scheduled to take the regular third-grade mastery test this spring, but after Berman raised questions, the school reviewed the case and decided to use an alternate special education checklist instead.

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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