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Education Department: Testing Policy Does Not Violate Student's Rights

Mary Washer, a profoundly disabled 17-year-old in Broken Arrow, Okla., has autism and encephalopathy, two disorders that leave her functioning at the cognitive level of a 16- to 18-month-old.

Like other students with disabilities in the state, Washer is required to pass "end of instruction" tests on four out of seven core content areas. But her mother, Angela Chada, contended that the state was discriminating against students like her by restricting the type of test accommodations her daughter could use. Those restrictions were keeping her daughter from earning a diploma, Chada said.

However, the U.S. Department of Education's office of civil rights disagreed, saying there was "insufficient evidence" to conclude that discrimination was occurring, according to an article published today in the Tulsa World. An excerpt:

Chada's complaint was sparked by the state's decision to take away color-coding as a testing accommodation for Washer.

But federal investigators said the state is required to determine appropriate accommodations for special needs students under law. And they must also ensure the reliability of test results.

In Washer's case, the state determined that test results unreliable after reviewing a video of her using color coding.

"I wanted her to get a diploma because she's been in school every day for 12 years, plus summer school for 12 years," Chada said. "There are so many obstacles she has to get through just to make it through a day."
...

To get passing grades, teachers practiced moving [Washer's] hand with theirs over and over until she could place a Post-It note on the correct answer. Teachers then videoed the student doing so independently and send it to the state to be scored.

(Here's a list of frequently asked questions about students with disabilities and the Oklahoma "Achieving Classroom Excellence" policy, courtesy of the Oklahoma Department of Education. And last November, the Tulsa World wrote a feature story about Mary Washer soon after the civil rights complaint was filed)

Despite the OCR decision, Washer's story has a happy ending: She eventually managed to pass the required tests to the satisfaction of state officials, and she will earn her diploma. But this situation made me wonder about how students with Washer's level of disability will be affected by the implementation of Common Core State Standards and the tests that go with them. I explored this issue in a recent article; Oklahoma is one of the states in the Dynamic Learning Maps consortium, which is focused in embedding "testlets" in day-to-day instruction for students with severe disabilities. The 2014-15 school year, which is when these new tests need to be ready for full implementation, is bearing down on us.

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