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Maryland has far to go in testing and teaching special education students [Commentary]

Excluding children with disabilities from assessments artificially inflates state rankings and reveals instruction issues

By Kalman R. Hettleman

2:15 PM EST, December 5, 2013

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The Baltimore Sun gets high marks for uncovering the shameful fact that Maryland ranks first nationally in improperly excluding students with disabilities from taking the leading national test of reading ability ("Md. excluded large number of special-education students in national test," Nov. 16). These exclusions inflate the state's test scores. They also deflate Maryland's reputation as the No. 1 education state as ranked by Education Week.

The exclusions help to reveal how certain practices ruin many, if not most, chances that students with disabilities have for academic success. But they are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the lack of understanding — not just about testing but about overall instruction of students with disabilities.

Maryland has excluded so many students mainly because, under the rules governing the test (known as the National Assessment of Academic Progress), students with disabilities cannot have the test questions read aloud to them. Without this "read-aloud accommodation," as it's known under federal law, many students with disabilities would fail the test, lowering Maryland's national ranking.

Maryland is not alone in gaming the test. Virtually all states and school districts nationwide misuse the read-aloud accommodation more or less. Researcher Daniel Koretz, professor of education at Harvard University, writes that determining appropriate accommodations "turns out to be an extraordinarily difficult question." But some things are clearer than others, and Maryland has clearly stepped over the line.

The read-aloud accommodation is most necessary and proper when a student with a disability is far behind in reading ability. Sadly, a large reading gap is commonplace. National data show that in high school at least one fifth of all students with a relatively mild Specific Learning Disability (SLD), the largest disability classification, are reading at five or more grade levels below their enrolled grade level, and close to half are three or more grades below.

Suppose Johnny who has a SLD is in the 9th grade and is reading at a fourth-grade level. The read-aloud accommodation enables him to have "access to the general curriculum," as required by federal law, and earn passing grades in his high school literature, science, mathematics and social studies courses. Without this accommodation, he would be unable to understand the textbooks and other materials in these courses and have no chance of passing.

Yet, access to the general-education curriculum is not all the law requires. Johnny is also entitled to special education instruction and related services that will enable him to read on his own. For example, under the Common Core standards for grades six through 12, students must be able to "read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently."

This of course is easier said than done in middle and high schools when students are far behind. At these upper grades, the curriculum is crowded and teachers lack time and expertise to provide remedial instruction in reading. Still, some closing of the reading gap should occur.

The best scenario is to prevent students with disabilities from falling behind during elementary grades. But sufficient instruction to do this is lacking. I have represented, as a pro bono advocate, many students with relatively mild disabilities who received the read-aloud accommodation as early as the first or second grades. This is shocking. It is not just that it allows schools to inflate actual reading ability. It lessens the pressure on schools to provide the reading interventions that will enable the 80 percent of all students with disabilities who are not severely cognitively disabled to achieve reading proficiency on their own.

The urgent need to prevent reading deficiencies that trigger the read-aloud accommodation is a major goal of the Baltimore City school system's trailblazing "One Year Plus" policy. The policy raises the bar for special education services, as detailed in my recent report published by The Abell Foundation "Students with Disabilities Can Succeed." Other school systems in Maryland and nationwide should adopt the Baltimore model.

In the meantime, the promise by state school Superintendent Lillian M. Lowry to reduce the number of exclusions on the national test is only a small, first step. Far more important is action by the Maryland State Department of Education to ensure that students with disabilities receive appropriate instruction so that they learn to read independently, thereby negating the need for premature and improper use of the read-aloud accommodation and unjustifiable exclusions from testing.

Kalman R. Hettleman is a former member of the Baltimore school board and former state human resources secretary. His email is khettleman@gmail.com


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