Balto. Co. schools err in testing process

Teachers told not to read to special-needs students

March 06, 2003|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN STAFF

Defying Maryland orders, Baltimore County school officials told teachers that they should not read questions on this week's Maryland School Assessment tests to students with special needs who should have received that help under federal law.

County school officials made the mistake after the Maryland State Department of Education sent two letters and conducted workshops for local school systems emphasizing the requirement to provide the reading help.

The Baltimore County school system was the only one in Maryland to commit the error during the roll-out of the new standardized tests, state education officials said.

"Everybody understood our memo. Everybody applied it properly," except Baltimore County, said Ronald A. Peiffer, assistant state superintendent.

After learning of the mistake, MSDE took the unusual step yesterday of telling Baltimore County school officials it will audit district records and this week's testing practices to make sure the system is following federal and state laws on the education of students with special needs.

MSDE also directed county school officials to correct their testing mistake and retrain all staff in the proper administration of the tests. "I think they understand now this was an incorrect communication on their part," Peiffer said.

Douglas J. Neilson, Baltimore County schools spokesman, acknowledged, "We made a mistake." He said Superintendent Joe A. Hairston conducted an investigation, found that one school official was to blame and will discipline that employee. Officials declined to name the person.

Meanwhile, teachers and parents said that special-needs children suffered undue stress because most of them couldn't read the test. These children, for example, have severe memory problems, autism or traumatic brain injuries that cause them to read below grade level.

"They should not have to go through that agony," said Jan Thomas of Timonium, who has a daughter with special needs.

Baltimore County's mistake comes during the first administration of the MSAs, standardized tests for third-, fifth-, eighth- and 10th-graders, which Maryland introduced this year to abide by a new federal law toughening accountability of public schools.

Baltimore County school officials said about 300 students didn't the receive the reading help. But state officials estimated that the mistake affects 1,000 to 2,000 students.

Because that is only a fraction of the 262,000 students who have been taking the tests statewide this week, state officials don't believe Baltimore County's mistake will skew test results when state officials calculate what constitutes a good score and set annual targets for improvement.

The affected students have special educational needs that require educators to formulate an individual education plan, or IEP, for instructing the children.

The plans have the effect of federal law, and school systems are obliged to follow them when educating the children. Under some IEPs, teachers are required to read to students who have trouble recognizing words.

It was this reading requirement that Baltimore County school officials defied despite MSDE's explicit instructions.

In a Feb. 5 letter, MSDE instructed school systems to provide the reading help if a student's IEP called for it and if the student regularly received the help during daily instruction.

"The accommodation must also be provided to that student for state testing purposes," the letter said. The word "must" was underlined and in boldface.

The letter said the test score of a third-grader who receives the help will be the lowest mark because the questions measure reading comprehension, so districts should make sure the child really needs the help. An amended letter, dated Feb. 13, included the same highlighted instruction and added, "This policy of providing the accommodation is to be followed, regardless of whether the accommodation would invalidate the student's test score."

Next, Maryland Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and assistant state superintendents talked with local superintendents, special education administrators and testing directors on the phone and in workshops, repeating the instruction.

"We took great pains to make sure that that memo is clear and specific," said Gary Heath, the acting assistant state superintendent for testing.

School officials in Baltimore City, Anne Arundel, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties said they told teachers to provide the reading help for students requiring it, and teachers were following the directions this week.

"It was a big, bold, underlined thing that the state sent out," said Harry Fogle, the Carroll County schools' director of elementary and special education.

Nevertheless, on Feb. 24, Baltimore County school officials sent a letter to principals, special education department chairs and other educators in the system advising that nothing more than test directions could be read to the students.

"In the case of a reading test such as MSA, which assesses a student's ability to read, the test may not be read to the student," the letter said. The words "may not" were in boldface.

The letter was sent by Paul Mazza, the school system's director of testing; Jean Satterfield, director of special education instruction; and Mandi Kirsh, coordinator of testing.

Sun staff writers Liz F. Kay, Laura Loh and Jennifer McMenamin contributed to this article.

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