Md. exclusion of special ed students affects national scores

November 24, 2013

When Maryland officials recently trumpeted the performance of their students on national reading tests, they failed to mention one thing: The state blocked more than half its English language learners and students with learning disabilities from taking the test, students whose scores would have dragged down the results.

Maryland excluded 62 percent of students in two categories — learning-disabled and English learners — from the fourth-grade reading test and 60 percent of those students from the eighth-grade reading test.

The state led the nation in excluding students on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress, posting rates that were five times the national average and more than double the rate of any other state.

Lillian Lowery, the state’s superintendent of schools, said she plans to review the state’s exclusion rates and their effect on the state’s test performance.

“We do need for those students to be included, absolutely,” Lowery said. “We want parents and students to know exactly how they are performing, as it relates to what they’ve been able to do, and that they’re ready to graduate from high school [being] college- and career-ready. It is certainly data that we need to unpack and review.”

Maryland’s percentage of excluded students is also notable because it has been increasing during the past decade, while every other state has moved in the opposite direction.

The governing board that administers the test has been encouraging states to include as many students as possible and set a goal that they exclude just 15 percent of learning-disabled and English language learners.

“States that opt out the largest percentages of students on NAEP tend to end up with higher scores relative to other states; so parents in Maryland may be misled as to how well their schools are doing compared to other states around the country,” said Timothy Shanahan, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who is an expert in reading and reading tests.

The National Center on Education Statistics, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, estimated how every state would have performed on the reading test if it had included those with learning disabilities and English language learners. For most states, the change would have resulted in a point or two difference in average scores on the test, which is graded on a point scale from zero to 500.

If Maryland had included its learning-disabled and English learners, the state’s average score would have dropped approximately eight points — from 232.1 to 224.5 — for fourth-grade reading and about five points — from 273.8 to 269 points — for eighth-grade reading. That estimated change would drop Maryland from having the second-highest state score in fourth-grade reading to 11th place; Maryland would fall from sixth place in eighth-grade reading to 12th place.

Clayton Best, Maryland’s NAEP coordinator, said the state excludes so many students because it offers an accommodation known as “read aloud” to learning-disabled students on annual state exams. When a read-aloud accommodation is made, a person or a computer reads the text to the student.

If a learning-disabled student uses read-aloud, it is likely included in a legally binding agreement between the student and the local school district — known as an individualized education plan — that spells out the kinds of accommodation a student will receive in the classroom and on tests.

Because NAEP does not permit the read-aloud accommodation, Maryland can exclude such students. The Maryland Department of Education first decided to offer the read-aloud accommodation in 1991.

“What concerns me is the implication that this is a conscious process to eliminate students taking the test to improve the NAEP scores,” Best said. “There’s no motivation to do that at all.”

Fewer than 10 states permit the read-aloud accommodation, which is controversial within the community of people with disabilities. Some think it is an important tool to help people with severe learning disabilities engage with the written word. While having a passage read aloud removes the decoding aspect of reading, the student still has to make sense of the passage, so it still tests comprehension, they say.

Others think the read-aloud accommodation defeats the purpose of a reading test.

“You no longer have a reading test. Now you have a listening test,” said Richard Allington, a professor of education at the University of Tennessee and an expert on early literacy. The accommodation “allows special-education teachers, classroom teachers and the school to avoid the responsibility of actually teaching those kids to read.”

But even advocates for people with disabilities who support the use of the read-aloud accommodation question why Maryland’s exclusion rate is so high.

“That number is a red flag. It stands out this year in particular because NAEP’s (average) exclusion rate has dropped so much,” said Lindsay Jones, the director of public policy and advocacy for the National Center for Learning Disabilities. “It’s a cause for further examination, absolutely.”

Lyndsey Layton has been covering national education since 2011, writing about everything from parent trigger laws to poverty’s impact on education to the shifting politics of school reform.
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