Expecting more of students with disabilities

Stacey Smith is an Oakland school district parent and volunteer who has served on the District GATE Advisory Committee, the school board’s Special Committee on School Based Management, and the Community Advisory Committee for Special Education. What she writes about does not reflect the view of any group.

“State should expect more of students with disabilities, say federal officials”

That’s the headline from a front-page San Francisco Chronicle story about how California schools have lowered academic expectations for special education students statewide by over-using the simplified California Modified Assessment (CMA) rather than using the regular California Standard Tests (CST).

The CMAs and CSTs are two standardized tests California students in grades 3-11 take annually. The U.S. Department of Education has expressed concern that California uses the CMAs more than twice as often as recommended by federal guidelines. According to the feds, the rate of special education students taking the CMAs should be 2 percent of the total student population and only 20 percent of the special education population.

How is OUSD doing? In 2011-12, Oakland reported that 7 percent of the district’s population enrolled in grades 3-11 took the CMAs for English Language Arts (ELA), more than three times the expected rate.

For those special education students that did test, about 60 percent took the CMA. However, grade-level percentages varied. In middle school, the numbers go up. In seventh grade, the number of students taking the CMA for both math and ELA represents about 60 percent of the entire special education population for that grade. That suggests increased use of the CMAs and a widening achievement gap.

These statistics raise some serious flags about how well OUSD is serving its disabled population and about the integrity of the OUSD’s policy on CMA use. In the article, U.S. officials state, “only 1 in 5 special needs students have a disability that could prevent them from achieving grade-level proficiency on the same tests students without disabilities take.”

Before deciding to use the CMA, a student must first test below or far below basic on the CSTs. Then the student’s IEP team must determine that it is “reasonably certain that the student will not achieve grade-level proficiency within the year covered by the student’s IEP plan” even with grade level instruction, special education, and all the assistance the team can think to put in place.

The whole premise behind special education is that, when implemented correctly, the student will be able to make progress toward the same educational goals as his or her peers. Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) and IEP teams are supposed to create a structure of support that will ensure student success. That includes a comprehensive plan geared to meet the unique academic and nonacademic need of the student. If special education was working the way it was supposed to in OUSD, students would be taking the CMA at much lower rates.

Even with the increased use of this alternate test, OUSD’s special education students are not meeting state proficiency targets. California Department of Education performance indicators for special education are annual targets aimed at measuring student success against state expectations. They also capture data that reflects the overall quality of a district’s special education program and the program statewide. The reports include data through 2010-11. Bottom line: OUSD isn’t doing very well.

For special education students taking both regular and alternate assessments, the 2010-11 proficiency targets for OUSD were 67 percent for both ELA and math. The district reported proficiency levels of less than half that figure (29 percent ELA, 31 percent math). This year’s target is 89 percent for ELA and math. That’s a big gap.

We can see the ripple effect in OUSD’s special education graduation rates. The CDE believes 90 percent of special education students should be graduating high school with a regular diploma; statewide about three-quarters of special education students are doing just that. Yet OUSD recently reported the 2010-11 graduation rate for special education students was only 39 percent, a dismal figure made worse by the fact that it was down 5 percent from the year before. Small wonder OUSD’s dropout rate that year was also higher than the state target (which the rest of the state met).

The Chronicle reports that the feds expect states to stop using the CMAs by 2015. With so many OUSD students taking the CMA, and so many students achieving so poorly overall, that puts huge pressure on the district to improve results from its special education program — and to do it quickly.

The pockets of special education success throughout the district are a reminder that this isn’t rocket science. Success takes the combination of a belief that students can achieve with an administrative commitment to put the right resources in place to make that happen. CDE offers recommendations to improve outcomes that echo the requests special education families and teachers have made for years. Things like more access to quality, highly trained special educators who have the skills and the resources to provide both special education and standards-based instruction. Increased partnership with general education. Case management time to monitor and implement IEPs, which for many students is a complicated mix of specialized instruction, services, accommodations and supports.

Instead, OUSD top administrators took the opposite approach in the last six months and further cut programs and resources to special education. By mid-October, at least nine schools were still missing either special day class teachers or resource specialists. Special education teachers have publicly complained about caseloads and class sizes so large they make serving the students impossible. Paraprofessionals, therapists, and other service providers are also missing or well over reasonable caseloads, an annual problem. These are not the actions of a district committed to equity and to the success of every student.

The feds say the state should expect more from students with disabilities, but what I want to know is, when will OUSD? And when will OUSD start acting like it?

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • teacher

    I am a special ed teacher and have never, ever heard that statement “Then the student’s IEP team must determine that it is “reasonably certain that the student will not achieve grade-level proficiency within the year covered by the student’s IEP plan.” That quote sounds very much like it was taken out of context, and does not even say that NOT achieving grade level proficiency is the criteria for taking or not taking the CMA.

    That is not part of the decision making that I know of being used to determine whether to use the CMA. Those of us who have seen the CMA and CST side by side can attest that the CMA is grade level standards. There are 3 answer choices instead of 4, the print size is larger, and in some cases the story is shorter. But it measures the same things.

    Of all of the issues to focus on in special ed, I am not sure that this one is the one that will most benefit students.

  • Turanga_Teach

    One of the main things that differs between CST and CMA, besides the absolute truckloads of wording and space which overwhelms students who have processing disorders in an absolute sea of similar information, is that the CMA does not typically have the answer choice which is deliberately designed to trick kids into selecting an error. Given that my students with IEPs who are taking the CMA explicitly struggle with reading comprehension and will need years of targeted intervention to fully be able to parse out the wheat from the chaff, I’ll “lower expectations” all over the place if it allows students I serve to be meaningfully–not maliciously–assessed.

  • Stacey Smith

    Thanks, Teacher, for pointing out my missing citation! It somehow didn’t make the final edit. The quote is taken from the CDE webpage: “CMA Participation Criteria and Definition of Terms” http://www.cde.ca.gov/ta/tg/sr/participcriteria.asp, last reviewed by CDE in March 2012. The criteria do seem to require that a student not be able to meet “grade-level proficiency” before being eligible to take the CMA.

    What’s striking is the way CDE differentiates between the two tests, saying in the definitions at the bottom of the page that the “modified academic achievement standards” used to measure student achievement on the CMA are “less difficult than the grade-level academic achievement standards.” Elsewhere it notes parents are supposed to be informed of the different standards and emphasizes the CMA is “less rigorous.” That surprised me, because I was originally under the same impression – that the tests were in different formats but basically measured the same standards.

    The SF Chronicle article made me wonder about a possible link to low OUSD special education student proficiency and graduation rates overall, which are what really concern me. If the feds say 80% of special education students should be able to meet “grade level proficiency”, and the state seems to define that in part by the ability to score proficient on the CSTs, what’s up with OUSD? Why do more than 20% of OUSD’s special education students seem to be taking the alternate test? The feds say that indicates special education students are not being held to the same high standards as their peers. Are there students right now in OUSD who shouldn’t be taking the CMA? Could they be taking the CSTs with more special education or other supports? If students are taking a less rigorous test, what impact does that have on the pathway to college and career – two major tenets of OUSD’s strategic plan?

    What do you all think?

  • Special Ed Parent

    If not CST and CMA’s, then what? How does OUSD measure and assess student success and program/classroom quality? Graduation rates are a clear indicator. Reading proficiency based on developmental reading assessments such as Dibels, DRA’s, and other types are also crucial. Parent surveys about their children’s progress and the success of accommodations and modifications would yield important data. If we can’t collectively name what accounts for success, how can we aim for it? Finally, basic expectations for professional capacity, classroom resources/supports, among other programmatic criteria would help as well. We need of “full inclusion” (no pun intended) of Special Education within school quality review processes currently happening in OUSD. Clear indicators for programmatic quality must be named in those processes.

    The most crucial statement within this valuable article by Ms. Smith is the following one: “The pockets of special education success throughout the district are a reminder that this isn’t rocket science. Success takes the combination of a belief that students can achieve with an administrative commitment to put the right resources in place to make that happen.” The recommendations that follow name the work that remains to be done.

    Given the passionate and committed organizing of parents, staff, and community partners in the past few months, the moment is now for expecting that OUSD truly “expect success” for students with Special Needs by first knowing what success would look like.