Districts successfully appeal some on list of failing schools

Special-education testing change leads to decisions

August 12, 2005|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,SUN STAFF

Taking advantage of recently relaxed rules, several area districts have persuaded the state to remove schools from a list of those that had failed to demonstrate "adequate yearly" academic progress under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

The results of the appeals - based on a change in how children with learning disabilities are treated under the state's accountability program - came as a relief to school systems. Remaining on the list could subject the schools to an escalating list of sanctions that includes, ultimately, a state takeover.

But one advocate for special-education pupils is wary.

"Anytime you relax requirements, it raises concerns about whether you're going to lose accountability for these kids getting the education they need," said Leslie Seid Margolis, managing attorney for nonprofit Maryland Disability Law Center.

"I appreciate the pressure the state and schools feel, but we're going to have to be very vigilant about how this unfolds - that the kids are protected and have access to education," she said.

Under No Child Left Behind, states must annually measure academic progress through a standardized test, which in Maryland is the Maryland School Assessment. Schools that fail to meet benchmarks for two years in a row are added to the state's list of failing schools and must begin remediation efforts that include offering free tutoring.

Schools that continue to lag face stiffer consequences.

School systems - which must measure progress in several subgroups - complained, however, that they were being penalized if they had large numbers of special-education students who were unable to meet the standards.

The state administers the "alternate MSA" for 1 percent of pupils who are considered severely learning disabled. This year, state education officials persuaded the federal government to allow them to create an additional test - the modified MSA, a shorter version of the exam - for up to an additional 2 percent of each county's pupils.

The modified test has not been created, but state school officials allowed local districts to appeal results for special-education pupils based on a belief that they would have qualified to take it and likely would have passed it.

"The federal government gave us approval to look at [these results] as if we had already developed that test and make the assumption that these students could've passed it," said Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the state Department of Education. He said state officials hope to have the test ready by spring.

While the bulk of the appeals were generated by the new rule regarding special-education pupils, school systems also won some appeals based on coding errors, in which they demonstrated some children had been incorrectly accounted for in testing records.

In Baltimore City, school officials appealed results from 18 schools. Six appeals have been granted - Westside, Charles Carroll Barrister, Harlem Park, Robert W. Coleman and Northwood elementaries and Violetville Elementary/Middle - but the other 12 remain under review

"The appeals are still in process," said Vanessa Pyatt, a city schools spokeswoman. "We are still awaiting clarification from the state on some unresolved issues."

Reinhard said the state hopes to complete its review of appeals by late next week.

In Baltimore County, the results from four schools were successfully appealed - Berkshire Elementary, Hallstead Academy, as well as Holabird and Stemmers Run middle schools. It was not clear yesterday how many schools the county appealed.

Carroll won all three of its appeals: Special-education pupils at Robert Moton Elementary and North Carroll Middle had fallen short on the progress charts, while pupils with limited English skills at Westminster Middle had missed the mark.

That means the county now has no elementary or middle schools that failed to make enough progress.

"We're going to work with those schools as though we lost these appeals," said Carroll Superintendent Charles I. Ecker. "We don't want to get that close [to not making sufficient progress] again."

State education officials also this week accepted Anne Arundel County's appeals for Glendale Elementary School and Tracey's Elementary School. Children in special-education classes at both schools had missed performance targets on state tests.

With this decision, all 77 of the county's elementary schools and elementary-aged children at three special-education centers are considered to have met progress standards.

Arundel's middle school appeals did not fare as well, however. Seven of 20 middle schools failed to reach achievement targets. School officials have withdrawn appeals for Brooklyn Park and Old Mill Middle North, said spokeswoman Maneka Wade. The appeal for J. Albert Adams, an alternative middle school, is under review.

Harford County school officials had appealed results from three schools, but only two had enough questionable cases to take them off the list, said Supertintendent Jacqueline C. Haas.

William S. James Elementary and Havre De Grace Middle are in the clear, but Magnolia Elementary remains on the list of schools in need of improvement.

Howard County, which appealed the results from five schools, said one - the Homewood School, an alternative learning program - was approved based on a coding error, and the district expects "positive outcomes" for the other four, said spokeswoman Patti Caplan.

Those appeals involve special-education pupils at Phelps Luck Elementary, Cradlerock School and Patuxent Valley Middle School, as well as pupils with limited English skills at Wilde Lake Middle who failed to make sufficient strides on the reading test.

Sun staff writers Sandy Alexander, Anica Butler, Liz F. Kay and William Wan contributed to this article.

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