Plan Takes Shape For Special-Ed Tests

Margaret Spellings, center, and Maryland Superintendent Nancy Grasmick visit Camille Alexander, left, and Colton Witt at a Columbia school.
Margaret Spellings, center, and Maryland Superintendent Nancy Grasmick visit Camille Alexander, left, and Colton Witt at a Columbia school. (By Michael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Post)
By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 15, 2005

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings outlined new testing rules for disabled students yesterday, formalizing an initiative that has already helped more than 100 public schools in Maryland and Virginia meet the standards of the No Child Left Behind law.

In a speech at Guilford Elementary in Columbia, which she cited as a model for special education, Spellings fleshed out a plan she first proposed last spring. The plan builds on existing rules that allow alternative testing for the most severely disabled students, a change that raised the scores of up to 1 percent of all students tested in a public school system or state.

Now, the Bush administration will allow modified tests for another group of special-ed students who have significant learning disabilities, emotional disorders or other impairments. That's likely to drive up scores for an additional 2 percent of students tested, state and federal officials said.

As a result, up to 3 percent of all students tested in reading and mathematics under the federal law soon may be scored as proficient through alternative or modified assessments, even though they are academically below grade level.

For educators in the Washington area, the new leeway on special education is quite tangible. Seventy-six Maryland schools and 54 Virginia schools benefited in the last academic year from temporary relief that Spellings granted.

Those schools made adequate yearly progress, or AYP, by adjusting scores for certain special-ed students. Without the adjustments, state education officials said, the schools would have fallen short, putting them in jeopardy of various sanctions.

Some schools that fail repeatedly to make AYP must allow students to transfer to better-performing schools; others must offer tutoring. Those that fall short perennially face major shakeups and the threat of state takeover.

"It's not window dressing for us," said Maryland Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick, appearing with Spellings. "This is real."

Among the Virginia schools that benefited in the last school year, said state education spokesman Charles B. Pyle, were six in Fairfax County: Centreville, Chantilly and Fairfax high schools and Franklin, Lanier and Sandburg middle schools. Others were Wakefield High School in Arlington, Potomac Falls High School in Loudoun County and North Stafford High School in Stafford County, Pyle said.

Pyle said the initiative gave credit where it was due: to schools that demonstrated academic progress for disabled students. "We didn't view it as a gift, or bonus points," he said.

D.C. public schools did not qualify for the interim relief in the last school year, said school system spokeswoman Alexis Moore. She said the system would study the Spellings announcement and would seek to participate, if possible, in a modified special education testing plan. It already gives alternative assessments to the most severely disabled.

Spellings went to Guilford Elementary because state officials cited it as a model for special education. Half of the school's disabled students tested in 2003 passed state reading exams; two-thirds passed last spring. Spellings popped into third- and fourth-grade classrooms to watch students -- some of whom were disabled -- read and work with fractions.

"The flexibility is going to provide [states] with a smarter way to serve these students," Spellings told reporters afterward, "not a loophole." However, federal officials said most special education students would continue to be held to the same standards as the general student population.

How the new rules will work in practice remains to be seen. Maryland is developing modified versions of its state tests, but they will not be ready in this school year. Carol Ann Baglin of the Maryland State Department of Education said the modified tests would be taken with pencil and paper and would resemble other standardized examinations. But the questions, she said, would be phrased in ways that are more comprehensible to disabled students.

In addition, the portions of the curriculum actually tested would be narrowed. If the general version of a test covered 100 content items, Baglin said, the modified version might cover 75.

Local school officials cheered yesterday's announcement.

"Clearly, enabling schools to develop a separate set of standards and assessments for special-needs children is a step in the right direction," said Leroy Tompkins, chief accountability officer for Prince George's County schools.

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