By NANCY ZUCKERBROD
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON – When Tori Boyles, of Columbia, Mo., takes a test at school, an adult often reads the questions to her because the 9-year-old has learning disabilities that make reading difficult.
That kind of accommodation generally is not allowed for the reading test that public school students take under the federal No Child Left Behind law. Also, skipping the exam is not permitted for Tori, who has spina bifida, a condition often accompanied by learning problems.
“Why isn’t there an option to opt out of that?” asks her mother, Becky Boyles. “She just has to stare at this piece of paper. She’ll tell you she feels stupid. She feels absolutely stupid.”
Boyles and other parents are not the only ones frustrated when children such as Tori take federally mandated tests and do poorly. School administrators feel trapped by the system as well and lagging children risk being blamed for an entire school’s failure.
The dilemma is how to fix the problem without abandoning kids with special needs.
Under the federal law, which seeks to get all students reading and doing math on grade level by 2014, schools have to analyze the scores of groups of children. This includes special-education students and foreign-language speakers who are just learning English.
If certain groups of students fail to meet specific goals, entire schools can be labeled as needing improvement. They then might face steps such as having to replace teachers and principals. Critics say that can place enormous pressure on the lagging groups.
“In some instances, it’s made them into scapegoats. You hear, ‘Well if it wasn’t for these children, then we would be OK.’ It’s criminal to treat them this way,” said Carol Kula, who teaches high school students in Muscatine, Iowa, who are learning English as a second language.
The five-year-old federal law is scheduled to be rewritten this year, and the lawmakers in charge say they will try to change the rules for special-education students and recent immigrants. The aim is to inject more common sense into the law while sticking with its promise to leave no child behind.
“I think for both of these groups of students, the law was not well designed. It does not acknowledge (that) by definition these kids are not going to meet the same standards at the same pace as other students,” said Michael Petrilli, who wrote a book about the law and helped oversee the first years of the program at the Education Department.
Parents, teachers and state policymakers are among those pushing for more flexibility in the testing of special-education students and immigrants. Advocates for both groups caution against loosening the rules too much.
“What we’re hoping is that students with disabilities continue to be part of the accountability system. If they’re not, schools are going to make decisions that don’t include them,” said Katy Neas, a lobbyist for Easter Seals, which helps people with disabilities and special needs.
Delia Pompa, vice president for education at the National Council of La Raza, a Latino advocacy group, said excusing immigrants from tests could slow their learning. She says public schools have a long history of providing less than rigorous course work for students who are learning English.
The No Child Left Behind law requires annual testing in reading and math in third grade through eighth grade and once in high school.
Roughly 10 percent of special-education students – those with the most severe disabilities – take alternative tests under the law. These are easier than the regular exams. But critics say the tests still are too hard for some children and do not reflect lessons typically taught to severely disabled students.
In addition to the 10 percent who get the special test, the Education Department is considering allowing about one-fifth of the rest of the special-education students to take alternative tests. These tests are expected to be harder than the ones given to the first group but easier than the typical tests.
There is a debate about whether that overall total – about 30 percent of special-education students – is the right proportion of students to single out and whether states should be able to set such policies on their own.
Similarly, there is disagreement over how to test students who are learning English as a second language.
The government exempts students enrolled in U.S. schools for less than a year from taking reading tests. After that time, these students have to be tested.
The law says students can take the test in their native language for up to three years. States, however, have been slow to develop tests in other languages.
Critics say children cannot be expected to be proficient in reading until they have mastered English, which generally takes several years.
Students learning English and those with disabilities were an afterthought when the No Child Left Behind law was being written, according to those involved.
“We said if you’re going to have an accountability system, it needs to include everybody, and then the drafters said, ‘Oh yeah you’re right,”‘ said Neas, the Easter Seals lobbyist. She said she has heard complaints from teachers, who say the law is too rigid, and from parents, who want to know why their disabled children have to take the tests.
Peggy Walker, who teaches sixth-graders with disabilities in Stoughton, Wis., says the law has brought extra attention to the education of special-needs students.
“Everybody at our school is very focused on reducing the number of kids that aren’t proficient,” Walker said.
Walker said she worries the law further stigmatizes children with disabilities by placing schools on watch lists when those students fail.
Many educators say entire schools should not be labeled as failing in those circumstances and should only have to provide extra attention to lagging students.
Rep. Dale Kildee, who is in charge of the House subcommittee with jurisdiction over the education law, argues against making a hasty change.
“I think we’re very cautious in changing that, so we don’t have them lose sight of the fact that they have to serve those kids well,” said Kildee, D-Mich.
The education subcommittee’s top Republican, Delaware Rep. Mike Castle, recently said the law needs to be improved for special-education students and new immigrants. But he stopped short of spelling out what he wants to do.
California Democrat George Miller, who chairs the full education committee, also said these two areas must be reviewed.
One proposal expected to be considered would give schools credit if their students, including those with disabilities or those who are learning English, make strides but fall short of a specific goal.
“If every student moves forward, isn’t that the key? Some will move faster than others because of many elements in their lives,” said Brenda Dietrich, a school superintendent in the Topeka, Kan., area. She oversees a district where a school failed to meet the law’s progress goal because of the scores of special-education students.
For Becky Boyles, who has adopted six children, including Tori, the idea of giving schools credit for progress makes sense. She likened it to the way she runs her home.
“Everybody’s expected to help out, but Tori who uses crutches can’t really get her dishes to the dishwasher,” she said. “Tori can get the soap in the dish washer and get the table wiped off. She’s still helping, but I’m not making her do things that she absolutely cannot do.”
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