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Special Ed To Get Modified PSSA

Kay's Comment: Common sense prevails in PA ... "Pennsylvania Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak, acknowledging that some special education students will never perform at grade level, is moving forward with plans to develop a modified version of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment. "

By Genevieve Marshall of The Morning Call, October 19, 2006

Pennsylvania Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak, acknowledging that some special education students will never perform at grade level, is moving forward with plans to develop a modified version of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment.

The test, which should be available within two years, would better represent what students with learning disabilities should know, based on their individualized education program, Zahorchak said.

''We've been one of the states pushing this with the federal government since early on,'' he said in a phone interview last week. ''We're just waiting on them to tell us how to go about developing different standards.''

Currently, all but 1 percent of students in third through eighth grades and 11th grade are required to take the math, reading and writing portions of the PSSA, regardless of their abilities. About 139,000 students in special education took the PSSA this year, out of about 939,000 students who took the test.

The 1 percent, most of whom have severe cognitive disabilities, take a test called the Pennsylvania Alternate for School Assessment, or the PASA.

According to Zahorchak's plans, the number of students who would not be required to take the PSSA would widen to 3 percent of all students. One percent would continue to take the PASA. Schools could give up to 2 percent of their students the new, modified version of the PSSA. About 18 percent of all special education students would take the modified test.

While the education secretary said he firmly believes in the mandates of the president's No Child Left Behind policy that all students must be proficient in math and reading by 2014 there is also a place for flexibility, he said.

''There are a whole group of kids who are seriously cognitively impaired,'' Zahorchak said. ''They are the gap kids, for which the PSSA does not do anything except frustrate those students.''

The new exam would be closer to the material tested on the PSSA than the existing PASA.

About 9 percent of the state's special education students take the PASA, and most have ''very severe'' cognitive disabilities such as mental retardation, autism or multiple disabilities that make it impossible for them to take the regular test, even with accommodations such as more time.

In 2005, 5,778 students were tested with the PASA. Data for 2006 was not available.

The PASA, which is videotaped and is not a written exam like the PSSA, takes a snapshot of students' typical performance on a small sample of academic skills in reading and math. Scores can count toward a school's proficiency.

Zahorchak's decision to develop a second alternative test comes on the heels of the latest guidelines for testing students with disabilities, handed down in the spring of 2005 by U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings.

At the time, Spellings said the policy change reflected a ''new common-sense approach to implementation of the [No Child Left Behind] law.''

But it's up to the states to ensure rigorous, research-based training for teachers and encourage collaboration between special education and classroom teachers, she said.

''If you stand up for the kids and provide better instruction and assessment, we will stand by you,'' Spellings told state education officials, according to a published announcement from May 10, 2005.

The news that Zahorchak will pursue the second alternative test was hailed by local educators, who for years have argued that giving special education students the PSSA puts students and schools in a lose-lose situation.

Special education teachers say taking the PSSA is stressful and upsetting to children who perform one or more grades below their actual grade level. They are concerned some students with learning disabilities won't be able to meet the same standards despite their best efforts.

''When the material is way beyond a child's abilities, it's very frustrating to that child and heartbreaking for us,'' said Joanne Jackson, a special education teacher at East Hills Middle School in Bethlehem.

Not that Jackson, who has 37 years' experience in the classroom, will ever stop trying to help her seventh- grade students develop the best reading and math skills possible.

''We will always encourage a child along as far as he or she can go,'' Jackson said.

The ideal would be to test all special education students at their developmental grade level rather than their ''grade of record,'' said Lee Kern, a professor of special education at Lehigh University in Bethlehem.

How individualized the modified PSSA will be is unknown.

Zahorchak said he is waiting on guidelines from the federal government, which he expects in January.

The U.S. Department of Education's printed policy states that students with learning disabilities are entitled to ''academic assessments that are sensitive to measuring progress in their learning and that recognize their individual needs.''

Schools with large special education populations argue they are unfairly singled out for the poor performance of students with severe learning disabilities.

Every year, the state gives all schools an Adequate Yearly Progress rating based on PSSA scores and test participation rates, and attendance and graduation rates. Schools with 40 or more students in special education have what the state considers a ''subgroup,'' and so their scores count toward a school's rating.

Districts complain the scores of any one subgroup including special education, minority groups, limited English and economically disadvantaged students can sink an entire school's AYP rating and give the public the perception that an entire school is failing.

This year, 151 schools did not make AYP because of the performance of one subgroup.

And schools that don't make AYP two years in a row face sanctions that could eventually lead to a state takeover for failing to improve.

This is a problem, educators say, because the variability in test scores from year to year can be more a function of changes in the enrollment of students with disabilities than evidence of how well schools are serving students with disabilities.

''We believe we should be held accountable for all of our students' scores,'' said Bethlehem Area Superintendent Joseph Lewis. ''But if you're talking solely about a few students with cognitive disabilities affecting the scores for all special education students, how is that an accurate portrayal of how we are succeeding or failing as a school?''

In the Bethlehem Area School District, four schools did not make AYP all or in part because of their special education subgroups.

''As the standards keep going up, you're going to find more and more schools and districts struggling with this problem,'' Lewis said.

A Morning Call analysis found dozens of schools in the Lehigh Valley and surrounding area are already struggling. The analysis showed schools with special education subgroups are more likely to fail to make Adequate Yearly Progress than those without the subgroup.

About 70 percent of schools with a special education subgroup received warnings or worse because those students did not meet federal targets that 45 percent be at least proficient in math and 54 percent at least proficient in reading.

Of these 55 schools, 29 had special education subgroups that failed in math and 29 in reading.

But the responsibility is not spread evenly among the region's schools.

The Morning Call found that of 192 schools in the Lehigh Valley area, only 9 percent have enough special education students to form a subgroup.

In the year and a half since Spellings' announcement, educators have been wondering if anything would come of the new policy, and when if ever they would see results.

''Please don't tell me if they're not going to follow through with it,'' said David Grim, director of assessment and data analysis for the Parkland School District, before Zahorchak confirmed Pennsylvania is pursuing the option.

''We're all hoping for a modified assessment that would allow our special education students to finally see success and meet the targets,'' he said.

genevieve.marshall@mcall.com, 610-820-6585

— Genevieve Marshall
The Morning Call


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