Under a new federal accountability system, Maryland is no longer in compliance with the rules governing special-education students because the state's schools exempt a high percentage of students from national testing.
The announcement this week by federal education officials means Maryland will have to pressure local school systems to include more students in the National Assessment of Educational Testing, a national test in math and reading that is given every two years. Thirty other states and the District of Columbia were also found out of compliance for a variety of reasons.
Maryland's most recent scores on the national reading test were inflated because the state's schools excluded 66 percent of fourth-graders with disabilities, a higher percentage than any other state. The national rate is 16 percent.
Individual schools decide which students are excluded from the test, and many base the decision on whether students are eligible for accommodations that allow teachers to read questions aloud for the reading test.
The "read aloud" accommodation is not allowed on NAEP, so many schools decided to not give the test to those students who were allowed the accommodation.
Over the years, Maryland's school superintendents have sent letters to local superintendents asking them not to exclude so many students, but many schools continued the practice.
Because of the federal ruling, state officials have begun meeting individually with each of the 24 school systems to discuss testing of students with disabilities, according to Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education.
Reinhard said Maryland officials will also be looking at strategies used by other states to increase participation in NAEP.
"It is something we have been working on for at least the last six years, and we will continue to work on it," he said.
"We would support the department's efforts to make sure as many students as possible have the opportunity to take the tests," said Dorie Flynn, executive director of the Maryland Association of Nonpublic Special Education Facilities, a group of more than 90 schools that receive some funding through the state and local school systems to educate special-education children. "There needs to be a level of accountability."
Special-education parents are divided on whether they want their children to be required to take tests, Flynn said. While some support the idea because they want their students to have high expectations, others don't want to put their children through the ordeal of taking a test they know they will fail.
Until recently, the Obama administration focused on whether schools were meeting procedural requirements, such as whether a special-education student was getting additional services or evaluations in a timely manner. Under the new system announced this week, federal officials will also look at the quality of the student's education, such as how well they do in math and reading compared to non-special education students, graduation rates and other factors.
Maryland was found to be in compliance with all procedural requirements.