Does No Child Left Behind set unfair expectations for special education students?by Laura McCallum, Minnesota Public Radio
Under No Child Left Behind, the vast majority of students with disabilities are required to pass standardized reading and math tests. Many educators say the law doesn't take their special needs into consideration.
Brainerd, Minn. — Brainerd High School is one of the largest non-metro high schools in Minnesota, with more than 1,600 students. It is, by many measures, a successful school.
Its graduation rate is nearly 98 percent. Its ACT scores are the highest they've been in 20 years, and surpass the state average. The school consistently makes Newsweek's list of top high schools in the country. But under No Child Left Behind, this is an underperforming school.
"This is the second year now that Brainerd High School has not made adequate yearly progress," said Principal Erich Heise.
Heise said the reason his school didn't make adequate yearly progress, or "AYP," is because its special education students failed to pass the math test.
Thirteen percent of the school's students have disabilities, ranging from autism to learning disorders to physical disabilities. Most of them are required to take the same math test that every other student takes. And most of them will never take the advanced math classes that will prepare them for the MCA IIs, which test students on higher-level math skills.
As Heise walks through his school, he points out one way the school is trying to address the education needs of special education students. Geometry concepts, a basic math class, is being co-taught by two teachers, math teacher Josh Duerr and special education teacher Terry Sluss.
Sluss works the room to see if any students need extra help. He checks on senior Shanna Fitch, who has a question about a problem.
Shanna is, in many ways, a typical teenager. She's a football cheerleader, she's looking forward to graduating this year, and she plans to go to college. She also has a learning disability, although she doesn't dwell on it. "No, I just don't even acknowledge it, because I feel like I'm a normal kid," said Shanna.
Shanna thinks school is pretty easy, except for math. She took algebra 1 last year as a junior, the same year she took the MCA II math test. Shanna said she thought she did OK on the test.
"The only disappointment I felt was when the test results came home. I found out I didn't pass, and I got a little upset," Shanna said. "I cried, because I wanted to pass."
That's how many special education students felt after taking the MCA IIs. Brainerd High School's lead special education teacher, Jessica Haapajoki, said her students didn't recognize much of the material that was on the test. She described their reaction.
"Very frustrating. 'Why didn't I have this class, or why am I not smart enough to take this test? Everybody else is taking this test. I'm just dumb,'" said Haapajoki.
No Child Left Behind allows school districts to give an alternative math test to 1 percent of the students at any grade level. So that test is reserved for students with the most severe disabilities.
Many educators think more students should be allowed to take an alternative math test. And principal Erich Heise thinks it's wrong to penalize schools if their special education students can't pass a high-stakes math test.
"To be required to test every child just doesn't make any intuitive sense. There are always going to be some children who will not meet standards. And we all know it," said Heise. "So when I speak of common sense, that's part of what I'm referring to."
Heise said most large schools are struggling with this issue, and facing penalties under No Child Left Behind. For many outstate schools, their special education students' test scores are the sole reason they didn't make adequate yearly progress.
About a dozen outstate high schools failed to make AYP only because of their special education students' math scores. Another dozen failed to make AYP because their special education students weren't proficient in reading.
As Congress prepares to debate re-authorizing No Child Left Behind, U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has said she's willing to look at better ways to test special education students. But during a recent conference call with reporters, Spellings said she will resist efforts to water down the law.
"It is a good and strong law that is reasonable, necessary and doable for our kids to be reading on grade level by 2014," said Spellings.
Many educators say while that's a noble goal, it doesn't reflect the diversity of children with special needs.
- Morning Edition, 10/04/2007, 7:23 a.m.