With thousands of special-education students in Maryland high schools failing the state's graduation exams, parents and advocates are deeply divided about whether these students should have to pass the tests.
The discussion is taking place as part of a larger debate by the state school board over whether all students, beginning with the Class of 2009, must pass High School Assessments in English, algebra, biology and American government before they can receive a diploma.
While about two-thirds or more of students are passing the tests, only about one-third of those in special education are doing so. There are about 30,000 special-education students in Maryland high schools.
On one side of the discussion are parents and advocates who believe the tests are not fair and place too little emphasis on how a student does in classes. "It is taking away a whole part of educating a child," said Naznin Adams, a Fort Washington woman who has a learning-disabled son.
But others see the tests as forcing school systems to push special-education students to higher levels.
VJ Piscano is one of those students, according to his mother, Kelli Nelson. After spending years in special-education classrooms during elementary and middle school, Piscano was steered into the mainstream at Pikesville High School, in part because he would have to take the assessments.
He blossomed, making years of progress in a short time, Nelson said. Now a junior, the 17-year-old has passed two of the four tests.
Even though many special-education students dread the assessments, Nelson said, the tests have kept the pressure on school systems to give some students their first access to the standard curriculum.
"I don't want someone handing VJ a diploma that means nothing," Nelson said. Her son has a gift for statistics and can memorize scores and figures, particularly when they are related to sports. His report cards show he is doing well, but he still struggles with taking tests, she said.
The state school board is considering whether to continue the current policy of requiring the tests, to delay the requirement, to give some students exemptions or to offer an alternative test to groups such as special-education students and those for whom English is a second language. The board is expected to discuss the issue when it meets this month.
Nelson would encourage the panel to keep the tests in place as a condition of graduation, although she would delay the requirement until 2011.
While her son has great teachers and a lot of support, she said, not all special-education students have had the same opportunities.
Pass rates for special-education students on the tests vary between 29 percent for English to 35 percent for government. While those rates will improve, it is still likely that large numbers of special-education students will not get a diploma in 2009 if there are no exemptions for them, advocates say.
"It seems that there are a lot of kids who may not get a diploma after working very hard to master the curriculum," said Leslie Margolis, a managing attorney at the Maryland Disability Law Center. "If you are going to have the test, you need multiple ways that kids with disabilities can access the tests."
Among the options are allowing students to do a senior project instead, to take a modified test or to obtain a waiver.
Margolis believes all of those options should be on the table for special-education students because of the variety of disabilities. "My concern is a one-size-fits-all solution," she said.
In March, state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick announced that she would propose delaying the tests for students for whom English is a second language, special-education students and those with mild learning disabilities who are classified as having "504 plans."
But she changed her mind and proposed in August that any student who fails the tests several times be allowed to submit a senior project instead.
A state task force recommended letting special-education students take a modified test that is under development. Students given the test are expected to understand the same material that any other student has received, but there would be different expectations for how well they score.
The panel did not support offering a different diploma for all special-education students or setting a lower standard for those students.
About 12 percent of the state's 800,000 K-12 public school students are in special education. About 1 percent are severely disabled and take alternative tests.
Some students who have learning disabilities are allowed to ask for accommodations. For instance, a student with dyslexia may be allowed a longer time to take an exam.