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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

State tests challenge special ed students

Taryn Brodwater Staff writers

Laurel Bancroft wanted what was best for her son.

She didn’t want him taking the Washington Assessment for Student Learning last spring.

Her son, Sean Carnahan, now 13, had been known to smash his hand through a wall when he grew frustrated. Carnahan has Asperger’s syndrome, a type of autism.

He’s one of the more than 4,000 special education students in Spokane Public Schools.

“I was pretty nervous about him taking the WASL,” Bancroft said. “I didn’t know how they were going to set it up.”

Shaw Middle School gave Carnahan a quiet area to test. As allowed by state law, a teacher helped read instructions to him. Because of his poor paper-and-pencil skills, his answers were transcribed from his oral responses.

Days after the test, Bancroft received an e-mail from Carnahan’s teacher. Carnahan had remained calm and had made it through the test, she was told. She never asked if he’d passed, but he’s now entering the eighth grade as a WASL veteran.

While the WASL is forcing parents and students like Carnahan to work hard, it’s a two-way street. Special education students, in return, are testing the education system that’s requiring them to meet the same standards as everyone else.

Statewide, special education programs have taken center stage as a pressing issue because of the WASL and a funding crunch caused by the high-demand programs.

All students must demonstrate proficiency in reading, writing and math by 2014, but students who are part of subgroups – such as low-income or Hispanic – can be exempted if fewer than 40 students are part of one group.

Spokane Public Schools has joined a coalition of Washington school districts that plans to sue the state for more funds for special education.

“There is a lot more attention on this (special education) group,” said Nancy Arnold, alternate assessment specialist for the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. “I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”

The WASL is Washington’s implementation of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which requires that every child become proficient in reading and math by 2014.

Schools are responsible for getting their students ready to pass the WASL, including students in special education.

Should a school pass in every category but special education, the entire school is considered below standards for “adequate yearly progress,” or AYP.

Overwhelmingly, it is the special education students who continue to stand out as not meeting state standards.

North Central High School and Sacajawea and Glover middle schools failed to make AYP, according to test figures released Wednesday.

All three schools were tripped up by special education scores. In Spokane Valley, University High School also missed AYP because of special education scores.

Alan Mahler, a special education teacher at University, said he did everything a teacher should do to prepare his students for the WASL.

He gave them the right tools, encouraged them and tried to make it fun.

“I told them it didn’t matter whether they passed or failed, just give it all you got,” Mahler said.

The payoff was big, just not big enough to pass.

The percentage of special education students at University who passed the WASL went up 10 percent in reading and 7 percent in math from the previous year’s scores.

It’s the second year University’s 50 special education students didn’t make it over the WASL bar.

“I’ve got kids trying their best and working as hard as they possibly can, even when everything is totally over their head,” Mahler said.

“It’s being reinforced to them that they’re dumb, that they’re not as good as everybody else.”

While schools struggle with the WASL, it’s important to realize that there’s more to the test than pass-fail rates, Arnold said.

“Students in special education are making gains if you look at the trend data,” Arnold said.

Take the percentage of special education students who passed the WASL in Spokane Public Schools middle schools.

The number of students passing math and reading at Sacajawea increased 1.5 percent in reading and math.

Glover’s jumped almost 18 percent in reading and 4.3 percent in math.

The biggest jumps came out of Shaw Middle School, where Carnahan took his WASL test.

In the 2002-2003 school year, none of Shaw’s special education students passed the WASL. In the following year, 45 percent passed reading, and 34 percent passed math.

Christi Culp, chairwoman of Shaw’s special education program, has been at Shaw for 21 years.

“We did a lot of things,” Culp said. “We look at what their needs are academically and emotionally.”

Her students tackled the same curriculum as every other student. They just went slower.

“We worked on sentence structure a lot,” Culp said. “We tried to get them to visualize what they want to write about.”

There were still lapses. When the testing day came, some of the special education students just got bored, because the tests were too difficult for them to understand, Mahler said.

What helped the scores improve was an alternative method of assessment, which is extremely time-consuming for the staff. It’s commonly referred to as creating a portfolio for students.

Essentially, they create a file for a student that documents the extent of a student’s skills. That portfolio can count as a passing grade.

The portfolio includes photos and numerous detailed reports. At least 30 hours can go into a single portfolio. Mahler said he spent nearly 50 hours on one for one of his special needs students.

At Shaw, the staff of several people created 17 portfolios.

Only the students considered most challenged to even make it through a WASL test were considered for a portfolio, Culp said.

The other story that’s not evident by looking solely at testing standards is how the rules changed for this past round of testing.

Two years ago, if a school had fewer then 30 special education students, their scores were tossed out. They didn’t have to worry about passing that group.

The same applied to all subgroups including areas of ethnic origin and poverty levels.

The minimum number of students increased in the recent test from 30 to 40.

That change allowed middle schools like Salk and Chase to exclude their special education scores.

At Sacajawea Middle School, if two fewer students had been in the special education department, their scores would have been tossed out. Instead, Sacajawea did not make AYP in special education.

In the Central Valley School District, both high schools fell short of AYP in special education.

This year, 39 students took the test at Central Valley and were considered exempt.

There is a clause that helps schools called “safe harbor.” A school that fails to make AYP can still earn a passing grade if the subgroup improves their scores by 10 percent from the previous year. North Central High School and University High School, which failed AYP in special education math, both passed because of the safe harbor clause for reading.

Every little bit can help, but not everyone agrees it’s enough.

“We’re talking about students that would never meet grade-level expectations. By definition if you have mental retardation, chances are you are below the group population,” said Bill Ash, assessment coordinator for the Central Valley School District.

“(The assessments) seem to be more of a punishment than assistance for us.”