Leaving special ed kids behind

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Principal Joel Bakrins of Rogers Elementary is quick to squash the notion that students receiving special education services are not as smart as other kids.

“They are just as intelligent and more,” says Bakrins, who, before taking the helm at the West Ridge school, spent eight years there as a counselor and case manager for learning-disabled children. “Their wiring is just different; they just see things differently.”

Bakrins’ high expectations—plus a commitment to including special education students in regular classrooms whenever possible rather than placing them in separate rooms—is paying off. Forty-five percent of special education students passed grade level reading tests in 2005, a 30-point increase over four years.

Unfortunately, at a time when the federal No Child Left Behind law requires that nearly every special education student be tested and that at least half of them pass, Rogers is far from the norm.

Rogers is one of only 26 public elementary schools in Chicago that met or were within striking distance last year of meeting the required pass rates in reading for special education students. (School-by-school results are not yet available for 2006.) Hundreds more elementaries have not fared anywhere near as well, according to the results of a Catalyst Chicago analysis of 2005 Illinois Standards Achievement Test scores.

At 212 elementary schools, fewer than 10 percent of special education students met state standards in reading and, at 85 of those schools, not one student did. High schools’ results were worse. (See related story)

No Child Left Behind stipulates that 95 percent of special education students must be tested, and, with the exception of students with the most profound disabilities, must take the same test as regular education students. At least 50 percent must pass reading, math and science.

In 2005, on average districtwide, 16 percent of special education students in the 492 elementary schools scored at or above grade level in reading; about 18 percent did so in math.

In the five years since it has been in effect, No Child Left Behind has revealed how poorly Chicago Public Schools is doing in getting special education students to perform at grade level.

“Many of those in the trenches—the special education case managers and teachers—have a sense that the law is absurd and they are frustrated,” says Access Living of Metro Chicago staffer Rodney Estvan, who, until this past summer, monitored Chicago Public Schools’ compliance with a federal consent decree related to improving instruction for special education students.

Beyond frustration, many educators—including Bakrins and even top CPS officials—are conflicted about whether grade-level standardized tests are the best tools to assess how much special education students know. Why are schools being held accountable for raising special education results without getting the extra staff and materials necessary to do so? And what sense does it make, they reason, to give students with disabilities a grade-level test that they cannot do well on?

“If a kid is reading at the 5th-grade level, why give them a 7th-grade test?” Bakrins says. “What do you prove?”

About 60 percent of the district’s 53,000 special education students have learning disabilities, which, in most cases, were diagnosed after teachers noticed problems with reading, says CPS Specialized Services Chief of Staff Teresa Garate. Quite a few more students who are hearing-impaired have trouble in language arts, she adds.

Yet reading well is key to passing standardized tests. “You wouldn’t test the walking ability of someone in a wheelchair or hand a blind person a book to read,” Garate says. “But with learning disabilities, we feel it is OK to test it.”

Still, she says that the system and the teaching colleges need to do a better job of getting special education teachers and the regular education teachers ready to teach students with disabilities.

“We are not doing an adequate job of preparing special education [teachers] for everything they need to do,” Garate concedes.

Long way to go

In Chicago, and most other districts, scores for special education students are the lowest of the eight groups of students whose performance is monitored under federal law. (Others include low-income, limited-English proficiency and racial and ethnic categories.)

CPS is doing a better job of meeting the requirement that 95 percent of all special education students are tested. The district met that benchmark last year.

Raising scores overall has been a bigger challenge. Since 2001, the percentage of special education students who passed the reading test has crept up from 12 percent to 15 percent in 2005.

Preliminary results for the 2006 test, which have not yet been released, are up significantly, says one school official who has seen them, similar to scores for regular students, but the gap between the two—about 30 points—remains the same.

Yet some schools are doing better than others. Nearly all of the 26 schools where at least 45 percent of special education students tested at grade level are magnets or charters, have selective enrollment, or are racially integrated. By contrast, schools with the lowest special education scores are predominantly black or Latino and overwhelmingly poor.

At the same time, there is some overlap. Schools that are otherwise high-performing saw sharp performance declines as the number of special education students who were tested increased. Among these schools are magnets such as Skinner, Jackson and Newberry Academy, and Bell, a neighborhood school with a large hearing-impaired population.

At Bell, the number of special education students tested rose from five in 2000 to 40 in 2005; pass rates fell, from 80 percent to 20 percent.

Moos Elementary, a neighborhood school that serves mostly students from poor families, experienced a similar trend, with scores dropping (from 44 percent to 11 percent) as more special education students were tested (from 11 children to 43).

Testing not ‘traumatic’

Initially, faculty feared that testing more special education students would result in more kids acting out when they did poorly on tests, says case manager Margot Pergantis. Eleven percent of Moos’ 770 students receive special education services.

But that didn’t happen. Instead, teachers were trained in curriculum mapping and then used those skills to make sure lessons for special education students lined up with those being given to kids in general education classes. Staff also spent more time developing accommodations and modifications tailored to meet individual special education students’ academic needs. Some kids, for example, can have parts of the test read aloud; others can work in a separate space.

“The students have done well from an emotional point of view,” Pergantis says. “It has not been a traumatic experience. We are seeing that they have the capacity to learn.”

Changing the mindset of educators is one reason why some advocates actually support testing special education students. Many states were already beginning to give special education children tests prior to No Child Left Behind, but some, like Illinois, allowed teachers to decide which students to test and which level test to give them, says Lynda Van Kuren of the Arlington, Va.-based Council for Exceptional Children.

Across the board, testing means that districts’ special education departments are held accountable, Van Kuren argues, despite anecdotal reports that some children respond poorly to such tests and have even dropped out of school.

However, absolute scores on grade-level tests don’t mean anything given the academic range of children in special education programs. More telling, say educators like Garate and Bakrins, would be tests that measure and track progress.

“So if you have a child going from pre-literacy to reading in a year, but he’s 8, all [the current test] tells you is that he doesn’t meet grade level, not that the teachers did a great job moving him forward in a year,” Garate says.

Rather than testing once a year, schools might consider giving standardized tests in September and again in May, says Mitchell Beck, chairman of the special education department in the School of Education and Professional Studies at Central Connecticut State University. “Then you have a baseline and can see if a student has grown,” he says.

Parents of special education students are often ambivalent about testing. On one hand, they want teachers to have expectations for their children. But they are anxious about forcing their sons and daughters, often struggling and emotionally fragile, to take a test on which they may not perform well.

Lynn Betts has two sons in special education. One, who is severe-profound and attends Carver Middle School, takes an alternate test. The other, Edward, has a learning disability and is an 8th-grader at Cullen Elementary, where reading pass rate for special education students is 17 percent. To accommodate his disability, Edward is allowed to leave the regular classroom to take the test in a smaller, less distracting environment.

When scores arrived, Betts says she was not surprised Edward did well in reading, his strength, but poorly in math, where he struggles. What worries her is how these scores will impact his chances of getting into Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, where students have to test at a certain level to be put into a lottery.

“He likes to work with animals,” says Betts, who would prefer not to send Edward to Corliss, their neighborhood high school. “It’s overcrowded and it is too rough.”

Tight budgets, Fewer teachers

Another concern, says Betts, is whether CPS is serious about raising achievement for special education students. Often she has had to “fuss and fight” to get Edward the services he needs, and she believes that part of the reason his school complies is that she works for the Family Resource Center on Disabilities, an advocacy group.

At work, she hears parents complain about the lack of special education services at their children’s schools. Budget cuts this year, which eliminated more than 200 special education teachers and 700 aides, are likely to make things worse, says Betts. “How do you expect these students to compete when you are cutting the teachers and aides that help them?”

Key to improving instruction and meeting the requirements of No Child Left Behind, say experts, is making sure that special education students are integrated into regular classrooms as often as possible. “They have to be exposed to the regular education curriculum in order to even come close to meeting grade level,” says Christopher Koch, who, before recently being named interim superintendent of the Illinois State Board of Education, was in charge of the state’s special education division.

In 1999, CPS settled a lawsuit brought by parents and advocates who charged that the district was illegally segregating students with disabilities. Since then, the district has made improvements, but still lags behind other districts in Illinois. Last year, 30 percent of special education students spent the majority of their time outside of a regular classroom, compared with only 18 percent elsewhere across the state.

Some principals argue that their inclusion efforts will be undermined by the staff cuts this year. But district officials counter that there is little they can do as long as funding is tight.

Over the past few years, local money spent on special education has increased, while federal funds have decreased and state funds have remained stable. Between fiscal years 2006 and 2007, the district’s contribution to special education expenditures rose 3 percent, making up nearly 16 percent of the $4.7 billion budget.

Jeffery Donoghue, finance analyst in the Office of Management and Budget, points out that the total special education expense rose, even with the cuts.

Meanwhile, Koch says the state will be carefully monitoring CPS, considering recent cuts and problems with inclusion. So far, there have been no specific complaints that staff cuts have sent more special education students into separate classrooms.

But Carter Elementary Principal Anita Harmon says she knows it will make a difference in her school, where fewer than 2 percent of special education students passed reading tests. Last year, all of Carter’s special education aides were retrained in how to help students raise achievement. Then the ax fell and the aides were cut.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she says, noting that aides helped keep children with behavioral disabilities focused on their work. “It will be impossible for teachers to give them the one-on-one they need.”

Principal Bakrins of Rogers is equally worried about the loss of two aides, even though his school’s scores are much higher. At least one student, he notes, will not be able to spend as much time in a regular classroom without her aide.

Curtailing the time spent in regular classrooms works against inclusion, one of Bakrins’ top priorities. In recent years, the school has received grant money to help foster more cooperation between general education and special education teachers.

This year, even 7th- and 8th-grade students who are assigned to self-contained classrooms will spend the first 15 minutes of their day in a regular classroom.

“We try to psyche everyone out to believe we are one happy family,” Bakrins says.

Associate Editor Debra Williams contributed to this report

Contact Sarah Karp at (312) 673-3882 or e-mail karp@catalyst-chicago.org.