Virginia acts to limit use of exam for special-ed students after criticism

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 26, 2010

Virginia officials are moving to sharply limit an alternative testing program that many schools in the Washington suburbs use to measure the abilities of special education students who traditionally have fared poorly on the state's Standards of Learning exams.

The effort by state lawmakers and education officials targets "portfolio" tests, which have helped increase passing rates at many schools by allowing students to avoid the multiple choice tests in favor of more flexible, individually tailored assessments. Critics have said that the alternative tests undermine Virginia's widely praised accountability system and overstate the progress districts are making in closing achievement gaps between racial groups.

State leaders say they are worried that portfolios, intended to help a select group of special education students who are learning grade-level material but cannot demonstrate what they know on a multiple choice test, are being overused.

"When you look at the growing numbers across the state, it appears there really is a problem here," said Del. John M. O'Bannon III (R-Henrico).

He sponsored a bill that stipulates that the portfolio should be phased out "as soon as is feasible" and once a different assessment can be developed. The bill passed unanimously in the House and Senate this month.

The portfolio tests, called the Virginia Grade Level Alternative, like the multiple-choice test, assesses students' understanding of the state's academic standards. Teachers document learning throughout the year in a binder of class work, including worksheets, quizzes and writing samples. Eligible students could have a wide range of disabilities, including information processing disorders or emotional disabilities.

The number of portfolios given in Virginia more than doubled, to 47,000, in the past three years. Recently released state data show that one in five students with disabilities in third through eighth grade was assessed with a portfolio in reading and in math in the 2008-09 school year. Several Northern Virginia school systems exceeded state averages, including Alexandria and Fairfax and Prince William counties. In Manassas Park, 45 percent of students with disabilities were tested with portfolios in reading and about 47 percent in math. The rates were higher in nearly a dozen other school systems.

High concentrations of minority students in special education classes have lent the debate a racial element. Progress toward closing the racial achievement gap in some Fairfax schools, for example, has been obscured by higher numbers of African American and Hispanic students taking the portfolio tests rather than the multiple choice tests, which have higher failure rates.

If Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) signs O'Bannon's bill into law, it would require superintendents and school board chairmen to certify that a clear justification has been given for each student selected to take the alternative test, a decision that is made by a committee of educators and a parent. McDonnell supports the legislation, a spokeswoman said.

State education officials also announced this month that they will require online training for administrators in districts where more than a quarter of students with disabilities are tested with portfolios.

The moves stem from concerns raised by parents and news reports, including in The Washington Post, about the rapidly increasing use of the alternative test and the corresponding rise in test scores.

"This was never meant to be a way to inflate scores," said Virginia Education Department spokesman Charles Pyle.

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