- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 12, 2005

More flexible rules for disabled schoolchildren under the No Child Left Behind Act conflict with state requirements for handicapped students, school officials and teachers say.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings moved this week to triple the number of students, from 1 percent (73,000) to 3 percent (219,000), with learning disabilities who can be exempted from federal achievement standards and assessments in reading and math, but educators say the new allowance is still too restrictive.

Utah, which has resisted federal involvement in state education standards, has about 20,000 children with severe disabilities in special-education classes, representing about 4 percent of the state’s student population, said state school chief Patti Harrington. Overall, the state has about 57,000 children, almost 12 percent of all students, in special education, and “about 3 percent tested at adaptive level, where they are, instead of at grade level,” she said.

School districts nationwide have complained that they cannot achieve adequate yearly progress as stated in the federal education act because of substandard test scores by handicapped students and those with low English proficiency.

They also say the federal requirement for grade-level proficiency for all students by 2014 conflicts with the provision under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act for each handicapped student to progress at his or her preprogrammed pace, and increasing the percentage of students omitted from testing won’t help. An estimated 10 percent of special-education children who are severely disabled can never reach grade-level proficiency.

“The 10 percent that I teach can be helped by high-tech [instruction]; they’re learning, but not at the rate that will ever put them at grade level,” said Jeralee Smith, who teaches severely handicapped children in Riverside, Calif.

Her class includes autistic and brain-damaged children, and children with missing limbs or who are unable to see, hear or speak. All need “special accommodations” for instruction apart from the rest of the student population, she said.

“Almost all human traits fall on a bell-shaped curve statistically. … My kids are probably in the bottom,” she said, adding that only five of her nine students are capable of taking the California standardized grade-level achievement tests, “and they’re all guessing, not understanding passages and questions. They understand only to bubble in one multiple-choice circle.”

“No Child Left Behind is premised on the idea that we can do better than the bell curve,” said Education Department spokeswoman Susan Aspey. “We have provided additional flexibility to help states better serve students with disabilities, but the fundamental premise remains unchanged.”

The federal education act requires subpar schools to report test results for each student subgroup: whites, minorities, children from poor families, handicapped students and those with low English proficiency. If any single subgroup in a school fails to make adequate yearly progress, the school as a whole fails.

About 7.3 million American children were in special education in 2002, comprising about 15 percent of the nation’s 48.5 million students in kindergarten through 12th grades, the National Center for Education Statistics reports.

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