- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 27, 2000

Fewer Virginia students with disabilities took the Standards of Learning tests last year, but their passing rates improved over the previous year, according to a recently released report.

Virginia's Special Education State Improvement Plan Report presents a rosy outlook on special education vis-a-vis the SOLs.

The number of special-education students to pass the tests rose from 27 percent to 34 percent between the previous school year and last year. During that time, however, the number of special-education students actually taking the SOLs dropped from 77.5 percent to 74.2 percent for grades three, five and eight. Among high school seniors, participation dropped from 94.3 percent to 91.2 percent.

The report, prepared by the Office of Special Education and Services of the Virginia Department of Education, analyzed data from the 1998 and 1999 SOL-testing periods. It is the first issued under the improvement plan, which was set up with part of a $6 million federal grant aimed at helping Virginia's special-education students meet performance goals.

"We will use this analysis to gather other information that will strategically improve the performance of special-education students," said John Mitchell, acting director of special education and student services in the Virginia Department of Education.

The report also says that the number of students with disabilities in the state climbed dramatically, from 145,114 in 1996-97 to 154,266 in 1998-99. The percentage of students with disabilities completing school during this time climbed from 66.7 percent to 75.4 percent.

The increase in the number of students with disabilities did not reflect an increase in the state's population, although the population did increase during this period, said Patricia Rosen, the report's author and associate director of special education.

"We are not exactly sure why we are seeing this increase," Mrs. Rosen said.

A special-education student's participation in the SOLs depends on the approval of a student's Individual Education Plan (IEP) team, made up of, among others, a teacher and the student's parents.

Once a special-education student is cleared to take the SOLs, they are judged exactly as students without disabilities, Mrs. Rosen said, adding that most tests were the same for students with or without disabilities.

The numbers presented in the report could fuel existing criticism about the increasing numbers of disabled students. Between 1997-98 and 1998-99, the state's total student population rose by 1.2 percent, while the number of disabled students rose by 3.35 percent.

Mickey VanDerwerker, an authority on special education in Bedford County who heads the group Parents Across Virginia United to Reform the SOLs, said she had heard complaints from parents saying their children were asked to be admitted to special education after they did not perform well on the SOLs.

The SOLs are given to public-school students in grades three, five and eight, and in high school. Beginning with the class of 2004, students must pass the high school exams to graduate. By 2007, schools where fewer than 70 percent of students pass the tests risk losing their accreditation.

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