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Maryland's "End Run"

Maryland is so quick to make all of these "statistical validity" sorts of arguments when it comes to NCLB -- but when we're talking taking away diplomas because of our exit exams -- one test is enough to ruin a student's life! I'll have to say - NCLB is good for one thing - uncovering hypocrisy amongst the testocrat set!

Subject: From Today's New York Times

June 7, 2004
States' End Run Dilutes Burden for Special Ed

SILVER SPRING, Md., June 6 - Every afternoon, a half-dozen
fourth and fifth graders with learning disabilities gather
in Julie Grant's classroom at Broad Acres Elementary. Some
struggle to turn the words they see and hear into coherent
thoughts, others to concentrate.

For now, the future of Broad Acres could depend on how well
Ms. Grant's tiny class does on the state's achievement
tests. Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, every
category of student at Broad Acres - including special
education - must show improvement or the entire school can
face penalties.

But like a dozen other states, Maryland is hoping to
circumvent those rules, asking to count students like Ms.
Grant's only as children of poverty, a big group that would
hide any lack of academic growth.

Maryland officials say their proposals would avoid large
numbers of schools being labeled "in need of improvement"
when only small numbers of students are doing poorly. If
changes are not made, said Nancy Grasmick, Maryland's
superintendent of schools, "there'll be a lot of anger on
the part of the community," some of it possibly directed at
the special education students.

So far, the federal government seems receptive to the
states' concerns. It is already allowing four states, in
addition to Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, to require
schools to have larger numbers of disabled or
non-English-speaking children in order to be judged by
their performance, and it is expected to approve similar
proposals from at least five more.

But many parents of children with disabilities, who
embraced No Child Left Behind because of its pledge to rate
schools by the performance of all kinds of students, say
they are outraged by the special allowances. "The purpose
of the law is to see what's what," said Ricki Sabia,
associate director of the National Policy Center at the
National Down Syndrome Society. "It's not to make schools
look good."

"Those of us who know the potential of the law are trying
to cling to it," said Ms. Sabia, who is the mother of a
child with Down syndrome here in Montgomery County.

Under the law, high-poverty schools labeled "in need of
improvement" for more than two years must spend up to 20
percent of their federal aid to send students to more
successful schools and to tutor students who do not
transfer. After four years of unsatisfactory progress, a
school could be closed and reopened under new management.

The changes Maryland is proposing in relabeling special ed
students would not only obscure some numbers, but would
likely increase the scores for special ed, since the
children remaining in that category would largely be white
students from affluent families who generally do better on

But even they may not be counted. Maryland is also
proposing to exclude any group that makes up less than 15
percent of the student population at the district and state
levels, a threshold that would largely eliminate both
disabled children and those learning English from the
federal law's accountability system. The state estimates
that under the proposed rules, marginal schools would
shrink to 26 percent, from 36 percent, and only 9 school
districts, rather than all 24, would fall short .

Other states are making different statistical moves, but
all would ease the rigor of the federal law, which says
that schools must break down test scores for every subgroup
above a certain size - by race, poverty, ethnicity,
disability and English-learners - and that each group must
make adequate progress on annual tests. Under the federal
law, states get to choose the minimum size necessary to
produce statistically reliable gauge of school quality.

Most commonly, states want to raise the minimum group size
for including children who are either disabled or deficient
in English in school accountability profiles. In Missouri,
for example, there must be 30 children in a given subgroup
for a school to be held responsible for their performance,
unless they are disabled or have limited English. Then
there must be 50.

Raymond J. Simon, the federal Education Department
assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education,
said states were right to wrest the maximum flexibility
from the law.

State officials maintain that there are sound statistical
reasons for their requests. The range of disabilities among
special ed students makes the group's membership highly
variable, they say, and so a larger number of test-takers
is needed to produce statistically reliable results.

Such steps have been approved in Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio,
Wisconsin, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., and five more
states have requests pending. About 26 states are also
using a statistical device known as a confidence interval,
a cushion for error based on the size of the sample, and 7
more have asked to follow suit. The effect of using a 99
percent confidence interval is significant, if seemingly
technical: For a class of 30 minority students at a school
where 40 percent of each group must pass a given exam, the
cushion grants the school victory if only 17 percent, or 5
rather than 12 students, succeed.

In those states, raising the minimum number of disabled or
foreign-born students to judge a school does not heighten
reliability, since the confidence interval already
compensates for smaller populations by giving wide berth
for error. The effect, rather, is to exclude schools with
lower numbers of poor, disabled or non-English-speaking
children from being judged by how well they educate those

In addition, some statisticians - like William H. Schmidt
of Michigan State University, who is the national research
coordinator for the Third International Mathematics and
Science Study - question the validity of using confidence
intervals for this purpose. The cushions are most often
used to allow for variations in statistical sampling, but
schools are reporting on actual students, not samples of

James H. Wendorf, executive director of the National Center
for Learning Disabilities, said: "We're very concerned that
students with disabilities are being hidden, pushed into
corners and closets and not really brought into the
assessment process. I'm afraid that these numbers games are
another way for schools to say, `We just can't educate
students with disabilities.' "

Advocates for children with limited English are also
unhappy about the changes.

Raul Gonzalez, legislative director for the National
Council of La Raza, said he was initially hopeful about the
law's potential, but has grown "deeply disappointed."

"The administration's really greased the wheels for this
law to be a spectacular failure in the very minority
communities that it's supposed to benefit," Mr. Gonzalez

The efforts by states to lessen No Child Left Behind's
reach has not come as a surprise to many education

"The law is unworkable, and so states have figured out
clever ways to keep it from being the case that all schools
are going to end up in the `needs improvement' category,"
said Robert L. Linn, co-director of the National Center for
Research on Evaluation, Student Standards and Testing.

Here in Montgomery County, parents of disabled children
said they were bracing for disappointment. In recent years,
many disabled students took the same standardized reading
tests as other children, but Maryland never reported
thousands of their scores, saying special accommodations
for their disabilities invalidated the results. Officials
say they have now fixed the problem and are reporting test
scores for those children.

"We have school systems tweaking these rules endlessly
because they're desperate to show improvement," said Robert
Astrove, the father of two disabled boys in Rockville. "And
the kids are the ones who suffer for it."

At Broad Acres Elementary, where Ms. Grant teaches, the
state's tough accountability system was instrumental in
revitalizing the school. Faced with the threat of takeover,
the principal, Jody Leleck, formulated a plan to raise
achievement, and won a reprieve.

She asked teachers for a three-year commitment to the
school and persuaded them to stay late on Wednesday
afternoons to compare notes, and plan short-term targets
for each subject. Ms. Grant attends the same meetings and
shares the same goals as the rest of the faculty.

Occasionally, she said, her students outdo other children
on the weekly targets. She confessed dismay at the prospect
that their achievements would not be reported separately in
the school's rating. Knowing that her children's scores
would affect the school's profile would keep her focused on
their progress, she said.

"If the expectation is not there for special education
students, then what are their teachers teaching them?" she
asked. "Are we just writing them off?"