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May 10, 2007

Parents withdraw deaf students from state tests

From: Ventura County Star - Ventura county,CA,USA - May 10, 2007

By Cheri Carlson (Contact)
Thursday, May 10, 2007

Rigo Corona doesn't put too much stock in annual achievement tests.

Each spring, students throughout Ventura County and the rest of the state go through days of Standardized Testing and Reporting, taking the STAR exams developed to measure their knowledge of academic standards.

Students' scores determine whether schools meet federal requirements set by the No Child Left Behind Act. Their scores also determine schools' state academic rankings.

But for Corona, the tests simply mean that his third-grade son, Albert, will come home from school tired and frustrated. Albert attends a program for hearing-impaired children at Loma Vista School in Ventura. Last year, he and his classmates sat through six days of tests, only to find out months later that their scores wouldn't be counted.

Their teachers used sign language to give them the test questions a modification that the school and parents said the children "rightfully and legally" deserved. Deaf children, who can't learn language skills by hearing, typically fall behind grade level in reading, they said.

State officials, however, decided that the use of sign language invalidates the scores on reading, language and spelling tests.

This month as students throughout the county take the 2007 exams 20 families in the Loma Vista program opted to have their children sit out STAR testing.

"It's hard for the kids to try and do something they have had little or no exposure to," Rigo Corona said. And after their test scores were thrown out, he added, the exercise seemed even more futile.

The No Child Left Behind Act requires that all students, including those with disabilities, participate in the annual achievement tests.

Some special education students up to 1 percent with the most significant cognitive disabilities take an alternate exam not tied to grade-level content. But all other students, including the hearing-impaired, are required to take the same test, based on grade-level standards.

'Modified assessment' approved

The U.S. Department of Education recently released regulations designed to change that. They allow states flexibility to create a "modified assessment" for special education students to master the same grade-level standards but take an easier test.

The modified assessment will be available for a yet-unidentified "small group" of students whose disabilities prevent them from meeting targets. Changes could include larger print, three answer choices instead of four, and teachers allowed to read test questions to students.

But no one knows exactly how the changes will be put into practice, according to Jan Chaldek, the state's STAR manager. A blueprint is being considered by the state Board of Education. After its approval, the modified exam must be developed and tested. At the earliest, a new, modified assessment for elementary grades would be ready in spring 2008.

Expectations raised

While local educators said they would welcome a modified assessment, Ron Moon, pupil services administrator for the Oxnard School District, said he thinks that No Child Left Behind has helped raise expectations in some special education classes.

"Many of us are glad to see special education students in a situation where the bar is raised," Moon said. "The question is: Has it been raised so far it's not achievable?"

He discourages the use of modifications in Oxnard schools because those tests automatically are given failing grades, but, he said, the new modified assessment, if approved, could be a solution for those students allowed to take it.

The new modified assessment could do a much better job of measuring progress, said Mary Samples, executive director of Ventura County's Special Education Local Plan Area. That, in turn, would provide schools and districts a more accurate snapshot of achievement.

"Hopefully, it will be a much more appropriate test," Samples said. When children are forced to take tests that aren't appropriate, "it's very demoralizing."

For that reason, parents sometimes opt out like they did at Loma Vista. In return, the student's school and district can face penalties under the accountability system.

Numbers make a difference

Under No Child Left Behind, schools and districts are put into "program improvement" and face sanctions for repeatedly failing to make adequate progress. That can happen either by having too few students scoring proficient on the exams or by having fewer than 95 percent of students taking the exams.

Last year, the Ventura Unified School District failed to meet that 95 percent mark. Students in the Loma Vista program, as well as special education students from two other Ventura schools, used modifications that the state said invalidated the tests and participation.

At Loma Vista, more than 100 parents signed letters being sent to federal lawmakers asking for a policy change.

"It was pretty frustrating for the kids," said Corona, whose son took the test again this year without sign language. Corona said he thought that it would help the school and told his son to just try his best.

Ventura Unified officials said it's too soon to say whether they will again miss the 95 percent mark. But they support those Loma Vista parents who decided to have their children sit out the exams.

"If I was a parent of a deaf child, I would make the exact same decision for my child," Ventura Superintendent Trudy Tuttle Arriaga said.

"That's not to say we don't want to be held accountable with our special needs population," she added. "I would love to have a meaningful assessment."

© 2007 Ventura County Star