Texas special education test scores suffer

More than a quarter of Texas school districts failed to meet special education standards set by the state last year after a more rigorous test was administered.

This year, the test results could be a double blow to those districts — the scores on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness-Accommodated, the new test that many special education students must take, will also count toward the districts’ overall state rating.

Six Central Texas school districts were among 28 percent of districts statewide that failed to meet special education requirements in the 2014-15 school year. Passing rates dropped as much as 60 percentage points. While school districts spent most of the year trying to implement strategies to boost performance, some say they wish they had the option of the old test, which was geared toward special education students who need more help.

Some parents whose children will face another round of STAAR testing over the next few weeks say that special education students are set up for failure because they aren’t allowed certain learning services that they would otherwise have on any other school assignment.

“I did not want to tell her the results. She feels like a failure,” said Angie De La Garza, a Georgetown mother of an eighth-grade special education student. “I try to explain to her that ‘this is how you were born. … I see nothing wrong with you. You just unfortunately have a different way of learning.’”

Equal playing field

Following federal requirements, the state last year replaced the STAAR-Modified with the STAAR-Accommodated as one of the primary tests special education students take. Texas had been one of the few states that still used a modified test, which was shorter, had fewer answer choices, broke up reading passages and had lower passing standards.

The newer test has the same type of questions as the regular STAAR but instead of being in a paper format, the STAAR-Accommodated is online and has some tools like a highlighter, text-to-audio capabilities and definitions for harder words. The passing standards for the test are also the same as the regular STAAR.

The U.S. Department of Education’s reasoning for the change is that if all students, regardless of learning abilities, are required to take the same kind of test, school districts won’t try to push students toward an easier one to inflate their performance. The department also asserts that research shows that most students with disabilities — with certain instruction and support — are able to perform at the same grade level as their regular-learning peers.

Becky Moschgat, a national education consultant who has worked in Texas, said that special education students should be held to the highest expectations possible and that educators should focus on the outcomes of testing rather than on the test itself.

“We need to start focusing on the prize, not the fear. Look at the solutions and not at the constraints. Do what’s best for kids. It’s not a question of whether the system is right or wrong, or the testing is right or wrong,” Moschgat said.

De La Garza disagrees with the federal government’s stance and said the new test ignores the specific needs of special education students like her daughter, who has a neurological genetic disorder that causes tumors to grow on nerves. Words jump around on the page for her daughter Hailey, and teachers often have to help her refocus because she’s easily distracted.

Hailey’s individualized education plan requires that she take frequent breaks during class and have someone help her focus and read passages — neither of which is allowed on the new test. Since her education plan is a legally binding document that requires school districts to follow it, De La Garza is considering suing the state.

Although Hailey passed all her STAAR tests in 2014, she failed all of them last year.

Unlike their regular-learning peers, special education students don’t have to pass the test for grade promotion or graduation.

State teacher groups, along with several school districts, want the state to bring back the modified test. The new test is geared toward “accommodated” learners who are able to learn the same material and meet the same expectations as their regular-learning peers but require certain tools. The previous test was geared toward “modified” learners who need simplified reading passages and questions and aren’t typically held to the same expectations as their peers.

Special education students with severe learning disabilities can take the STAAR-Alternate test, but the federal government limits the number of students statewide who can take the test.

Monty Exter, lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators, said that the STAAR-Accommodated is measuring the limits of the students’ disabilities and whether school districts are overidentifying special education students rather than measuring what students know.

“We are more concerned about accountability and playing the gotcha game than we are correctly identifying kids, their needs and educational attainment,” Exter said.

Falling short

The Austin, Pflugerville, Hays, Del Valle, Manor and San Marcos school districts didn’t meet special education requirements last school year. The districts are evaluated on STAAR passing and participation rates, graduation and disciplinary rates, and whether students from certain racial groups are being unnecessarily labeled as special education.

The Manor district got the lowest rating, “need substantial improvement,” and officials are making changes that include holding more after-school tutoring opportunities, having data meetings with teachers so they can adjust instruction if needed and intervening in third through fifth grades.

The Austin district is doing much of the same and making sure that students are using the same computerized tools that they would see on the STAAR-Accommodated, such as the highlighter and text-to-speech options.

Pflugerville and Austin school officials say the lackluster special education ratings they received last year don’t mean their districts aren’t doing a good job.

“In the area of special education, it’s really about, ‘Are you working to help each individual child?’ and I can confidently say, ‘We are,’ ” said Jean Bahney, the Austin district’s director of special education.

The Round Rock district met state requirements last year, after coaching students on how to take the online test, among other preparation.

Even with the relatively good performance, Round Rock’s scores slipped, and Mary Cardiff, head of the district’s special education department, is concerned that including STAAR-Accommodated performance in the overall rating school districts receive from the state won’t accurately reflect how well the district is educating special education students.

“Is it realistic to think that every student with a disability is going to perform at the same level as a student without a disability? I don’t think that’s a realistic expectation, but it’s our challenge to give them every opportunity to move toward that,” Cardiff said. “We know it’s a harder test, and I think the one thing to keep in mind is that when all the students need to take that test, we’re not sure we’re getting a true measurement of progress.”

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