Some parents of special-ed students oppose plan for testing

All high-schoolers would have to pass state exams to get diplomas

November 03, 2003|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

If Maryland's special-education teens were required to pass last year's High School Assessment exams to graduate -- which the state is considering requiring all students to do -- 90 percent of them would not earn their diplomas.

The figure is scaring some parents who say it's not fair and nearly impossible for their learning-disabled children to take the same classes and pass the same tests as general education students, who are apparently having trouble passing themselves: Nearly half of high-schoolers in the state failed one of the four assessment tests given last year.

"Some people cannot do algebra or geometry. I do not think that should hold them back from receiving a diploma," said Laurie Palmer, whose 16- year-old son, Tavon Hood, needs a diploma from Oakland Mills High School to train to become a plumber. "When's he ever going to use algebra?"

Palmer, who lives in Columbia, is one of many who have stepped forward to complain about the assessments and the classes they require.

Next month, the Maryland Board of Education will again discuss making passing the exams a graduation requirement, this time for the class of 2009. The deadline keeps getting pushed back as problems, such as dismal scores, surface.

The state is using the exams as a way to measure curricula consistency and student progress in the era of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which demands that all students, including those in special education, meet certain reading and math standards by 2014.

"It is going to raise the expectations for these students, without a doubt," said Carol Ann Baglin, assistant state superintendent for special education. "There are the same learning expectations across the board. That's what No Child Left Behind is all about."

Many applaud the concept but say that attaching such high stakes to education reform is self-defeating.

Education group representatives, parents and disabled-rights activists are calling the exams too narrow, exclusionary and inadequate learning gauges. They also say school systems lack the financial resources to support the curricula for the tests.

"How can the state mandate that our children pass a high-stakes test, a test that could prevent them from receiving a high school diploma, with the full knowledge that these same children are receiving inadequate support to pass the test?" the Maryland Education Coalition asked in testimony presented to the state school board last week.

State education officials say funding is on the way to help provide instruction for the tests and that there is still a long way to go before consequences, such as not receiving a diploma, are tied to the assessments.

"It's not like a child today is going to in June feel the impact of it," Baglin said. "It will result in children who are much younger having a more challenging curriculum."

Though passing the tests is not necessary for a diploma, taking them is. That means the 33,000 special-education students in high school -- such as Tavon, a junior who said he struggles with his multiplication tables -- have to take the same level courses as other students in preparation for the exams if they want a diploma.

"I wasn't sure if I was going to finish school or not. I thought they was cheating me out of" a diploma, Tavon said about discovering last month that his lower-level math concept classes weren't going to help him make the grade.

Miscommunication at Oakland Mills led Tavon and his mother to believe he was on a diploma track. When they found out he would have to take more stringent algebra and geometry classes -- with two years left in his high school career -- they balked, and he considered dropping out. Tavon enrolled in algebra midcourse this semester and is receiving extra tutelage.

Critics say they worry that the tests will lead to greater dropout rates.

"You set up kids who already have poor self-esteem and are already struggling to keep their heads above water. You set them up to fail when you do these types of tests," said Audrey H. Scully, a Montgomery County parent who has signed a petition against making passing the tests a graduation requirement.

"Daily life skills to me are more important than making a kid take geometry who's never going to use it," added Scully, who has a ninth-grade son with language processing difficulties.

Baglin said the tested subjects -- algebra, English, government, biology and geometry (the latter of which is tested through the Maryland School Assessment exam) -- fill a minimum expectation held by colleges and the working world that "your mind will be trained and developed to handle that information." Students take the tests at the end of the courses.

Options will also be considered by the state board to help disabled children pass, such as an appeals process and considering individual ability.

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