Special-education students struggle to pass state exams

Half to two-thirds of Maryland's fourth-, sixth- and seventh-graders passed tests in reading and mathematics this spring, but state officials expressed concern over the performance of disabled students.

Scores on the Maryland School Assessment were about the same as those posted last year by third-, fifth- and eighth-graders, but 85 percent of this year's disabled seventh-graders in special-education programs failed the math test, while 73 percent failed the reading exam.


Scoring standards for the tests, taken by 202,000 children in March, were approved yesterday by the state Board of Education. The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires reading and math testing in grades three through eight and grade 10, and scores must be broken down by eight "subgroups," including special-education children, African-Americans and children eligible for free lunches.

All of the subgroups are of concern, said state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, "but special education is the most worrisome. In the 199 schools failing to make adequate yearly progress, poor performance in special education is the most significant reason."


Grasmick said the problem is most acute in middle school, where reading often isn't taught as a separate subject. Special-education teachers tend to understand the strategies of teaching disabled students but not the required curriculum, she said.

When disabled students are in regular classrooms - known as "inclusion" or "mainstreaming" - "the problem is just the opposite," Grasmick said. "Those teachers in middle school know the content but not the teaching strategies."

Special-education scores in the fourth grade were markedly higher this year than those in the sixth and seventh grades. About 39 percent of the disabled fourth-graders, for example, passed the math test, scoring at the proficient or advanced level. Fourteen percent of the sixth-graders scored at those levels.

"Middle-schoolers in special education tend to be a more stable and more disabled population," said Carol Ann Baglin, who heads the state's special-education division. "We have our work cut out for us."

Baglin said the State Department of Education is working with local educators to target disabled pupils in middle school, using the new state tests to pinpoint academic weaknesses. "We're putting an extra $1 million in discretionary funds into the effort," she said.

Grasmick said none of the state's 24 districts "has escaped the special-ed problem. It's even an issue in Carroll County," which has no schools on the state's list of schools failing to meet standards.

The scoring standards, also known as "cut scores," are important because they provide the basis for a campaign to move all children - including those in the subgroups - to the proficient level by 2014, as required by the No Child Left Behind Act. Every subgroup in every school must make progress toward that goal. Failure triggers a series of progressively tougher sanctions.

Only statewide scores were released yesterday. Districts and schools will receive their results next month, and every parent will be sent a report card soon after school resumes this fall.


More than 200 Maryland educators spent much of last week devising the scoring standards. They were submitted to Grasmick, who approved them Monday. Yesterday's board vote on the standards was unanimous.

At a cost of about $15 a test for each student, Maryland has in place all tests required by the federal act save one: a science test to be unveiled in the 2006-2007 school year.