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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; B01

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.

The portfolios first were offered in 2004 to a handful of special education students. In 2007, the federal government approved the reading test for students who are beginning to learn English, after local school boards said the regular test was unfair. Many educators and parents say portfolios are valuable teaching tools, as well as fairer and more meaningful measures of individual learning than a one-day snapshot.

Vienna parent Tia Marsili said the portfolio has been the best option for her two daughters with Down syndrome. On a multiple choice test, they would probably be overwhelmed by the information on the page, she said. The portfolio lets them show what they understand in different ways. It also makes the teachers and the school system accountable for teaching them every part of the curriculum, she said.

Fairfax Superintendent Jack D. Dale said that administrators closely monitor use of the alternative test and that the district is not using it more than is appropriate.

Manassas Park Associate Superintendent Bruce McDade said the higher rate of students using portfolios could result from the high concentration of students with disabilities who are also learning English as a second language there.

The reading portfolio will continue to be used for students learning English, said state Superintendent of Public Instruction Patricia I. Wright. But she will begin working with the Board of Education this year to develop a new assessment for students with disabilities, she said.

Portfolios can be valuable assessment tools within classrooms, but they are problematic for a large-scale accountability program, in which cost-effectiveness, consistency and validity are paramount, Wright said. Teachers spend many hours compiling portfolios, and local school systems are responsible for scoring the tests.

Wright said she is worried that evidence submitted by teachers is not consistently credible. A state investigation in Buchanan County last summer found that some teachers submitted work samples for portfolios that were not done by students.

One alternative test under development is a simplified multiple choice test for students performing below grade level that might be better suited for some using the portfolio.

"After five years of implementation, I am finding that there are more problems with this type of assessment than we anticipated," Wright said, referring to the portfolio. "I am much more supportive of a more objective assessment."

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