In Testing, One Size May Not Fit All
By TAMAR LEWIN
March 18, 2002
Peter DaSilva for The New York Times
PITTSBURG, Calif. — Kyle Stofle, a 10th grader at Pittsburg High School who has dyslexia and virtually unreadable handwriting, has been in special education since second grade. But Kyle, 15, has always expected to get his diploma along with the rest of the class of 2004.
So he and his mother became worried when they learned that, starting with his class, every California student would have to pass a statewide language and math test to graduate.
"When the exit exam first came up, last year, I went to a meeting and asked what would happen to kids with learning disabilities," said Kyle's mother, Karen Bruno. "They kept saying that they didn't know, that it would end up in court."
So it has. An Oakland-based advocacy group challenged the graduation exam under federal disability laws.
On Feb. 21, two weeks before Kyle and other 10th graders were to take the test, Judge Charles R. Breyer of Federal District Court ruled that students with learning disabilities had the right to special treatment, through different assessment methods or accommodations like the use of a calculator or the chance to have test questions read aloud.
It was the first time a state had been ordered to adjust the conditions for its graduation exams for students with learning disabilities, most of whom are dyslexics with reading problems.
The question of how far to accommodate students with learning disabilities on college entrance tests like the SAT has become a familiar one, as requests for special accommodations proliferate, especially from affluent white families.
But with more than a dozen states putting graduation exams into effect in the next three years — and others requiring new tests for promotion to the next grade — the debate has become broader and more urgent, with some education experts predicting that new legal challenges are inevitable.
"As these laws are phased in and kids really start to be denied diplomas, it'll go to lots of courts, and lots of legislatures," Robert Schaeffer of FairTest, a group in Cambridge, Mass., that is critical of standardized testing. "This is a great unexplored weakness of the whole high-stakes testing thing."
Some education experts say they worry, however, that as more students seek special accommodations, the whole notion of standardized testing may break down. What is a diploma worth, they add, if students who cannot read, write or do arithmetic are allowed to pass academic tests?
With more than 12 percent of the nation's schoolchildren now identified as disabled — some with physical problems, but most with learning disabilities — concern is growing that some students say they have learning disabilities just to win easier testing conditions.
In recent years, half the states have enacted laws requiring that high school students pass standardized exams to graduate. High failure rates on the tests have prompted some states to delay putting them into effect or lower the score for passing.
These so-called exit exams create a particularly tough hurdle for students with learning disabilities. When California gave its first exit exam last year, on a voluntary basis, 9 of 10 students with learning disabilities failed.
Kyle failed the language and math sections, and because his handwriting was so bad, his essay questions were never scored.
"A lot of the questions made no sense to me," Kyle said. "Some of the math was on things I've never learned."
Kyle said he thinks he did better this year because his teacher, apparently on her own decision, read the questions to him. To earn his diploma, Kyle must pass the test by his senior year.
Many states, including New York, already allow a broad range of options for disabled students. Instead of taking the regular test, they can give oral presentations or present portfolios of their work.
But the clash between disability rights and educational standards is profound. States devised graduation exams to measure all students by the same yardstick. In contrast, the disability laws were designed to ensure that disabled children receive educations tailored to their needs. Moreover, there is little scientific data on precisely which accommodations help which learning disabilities.
"The equities here are not clear," said Lawrence Feinberg, assistant director of the group that administers the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federal test that rates school performance.
"Standardized tests came in because of variations in testing and grading and the notion that it's only fair if you test everyone the same way," he said. "It turns that whole idea on its head, if you treat some people differently because it's fairer to them."
Many state education officials say that including disabled students in statewide testing is a good thing.
"A student who's tested is a student who's taught," said Kit Viator, an assessment official in the Massachusetts education department.
Advocacy groups for the disabled do not disagree. But they say that making a learning disabled student take a standardized test without accommodations is as unfair as requiring a physically disabled child to run a race without a wheelchair.
"Standardized tests test students' disabilities, not their abilities," said Sid Wolinsky, a lawyer with Disability Rights Advocates, the Oakland group that challenged the California law. "No matter how well they master the content that's being tested, they will fail the exam if they have real problems with reading or handwriting."
As enacted, California's graduation exam policy prohibited calculators or test readers on the grounds that reading and calculating were so fundamental that students should not graduate without demonstrating those skills.
In December, that policy was amended to let disabled students who used such accommodations receive a diploma if their district won a waiver from the state, a process the judge said was still too restrictive.
While the judge's order allowed students to use accommodations on the latest exam, it left open, until a later hearing, the question of whether scores earned with such accommodations will be treated the same as those earned under regular conditions. So students who used accommodations do not yet know if a passing score will earn them a diploma.
"The dilemma we find ourselves in is this fairness issue, where to draw the line with students who have some disability that makes it impossible to pass this test," said Phil Spears, director of California Department of Education's Standards and Assessments Division.
"If you say that a student who doesn't have the ability to read or compute can still pass, that sends a message that isn't acceptable to the world out there," he said. "When special ed kids get out of school, they don't go to special ed town, they go out and compete with all the rest of us."
Mr. Spears added that California and other states had not yet resolved a basic question. "There's no clear understanding of what we're supposed to be doing," he said. "Are we creating tests of different content, at a lower level of rigor, for kids with disabilities? Or are we seeking other ways to assess their mastery of the same skills? I don't know the answer."
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