Louisiana state senators will be considering a bill Thursday that would allow teams of teachers, administrators and parents wide latitude in determining grade-promotion and graduation requirements for students with disabilities.
The rationale from bill supporters is that Louisiana students must currently pass a series of high-stakes tests before earning a diploma. In a state with a dismal record of graduating students with disabilities on time with a standard diploma—33 percent in the 2011-12 school year, according to federal statistics—such a change could mean more students making it all the way through high school.
House Bill 1015 passed its first hurdle in the state's House of Representatives, passing 99-0 on May 7. Thursday, the legislation is headed for consideration by the state Senate's education committee.
But the proposal has exposed a divide between groups that have the common purpose of representing students with disabilities, which in dueling letters and press releases are clashing over what it means to provide a rigorous and appropriate education for children with special learning needs.
The Louisiana Developmental Disabilities Council, based in Baton Rouge, has been working closely with the bill's main sponsor, Rep. John Schroder, a Republican. Members of the organization have also had conversations with John White, the state's superintendent of education, who has yet to weigh in on the proposal.
Current policy doesn't allow schools to get any credit for progress that a student makes if that student does not pass the high-stakes tests, said Shawn Fleming, the deputy director of the council, in an interview. "This drive to standardize has really caused a lot of confusion in states like Louisiana," he said. "There's been no flexibility, no respect given to how those individualized goals and objectives play into the accountability system."
A group of Louisiana-based special education and disability advocacy organizations, including the Louisiana Association of Special Education Administrators and a network of 10 family-directed and staffed regional resource centers, sent White a letter back in November, asking for some of the same changes to state policy that are a part of this bill.
"Those closest to students with disabilities should be trusted to develop the most rigorous, effective plan to facilitate each child's reaching his/her potential. No one has a more intimate knowledge of the strengths, needs, dreams, and potential of a student with disabilities than that student's IEP," the letter said.
Joining the supporters of the bill is Ashley McReynolds, a Baton Rouge mother of a 8-year-old son with a developmental disability. She has participated in the meetings with state officials, making the point that she has just as high standards for her son as she does for her daughter, who is typically developing.
"Right now, as policy stands, if he cannot pass a single high-stakes assessment he can't even get into high school, much less try to earn a high school diploma" she said. "There are so many things he does accomplish every day, every year on his IEP that basically are just discredited and not taken into account when making progression decisions. It's very, very frustrating."
But allowing IEP teams to come up with an ad hoc set of grade-promotion and graduation requirements is a slippery slope to low standards, said Lindsay Jones, the director of public policy and advocacy for the National Center for Learning Disabilities. A 2013 report from the NCLD, Diplomas at Risk, has been used by the supporters of the bill to bolster their views—the report explains how few students with learning disabilities are graduating with a regular diploma.
NCLD leadership has objected strongly to the report being used for that purpose, however, saying that the organization's intent is to push for higher standards, not for lower ones. (Schroder, the bill's main sponsor, responded that Louisiana is looking for the same flexibility that other states allow, using Kansas as an example. The Kansas policy Schroder cites is intended for students with severe disabilities, however, not all students served under the IDEA.)
There is no disagreement that a small group of students with severe cognitive impairments should have an alternate path to grade promotion and high school completion, Jones said. But what Louisiana is considering will apply to all students with disabilities, not just those with severe impairments, she said.
"What amazes me about this, and what makes me so sad, is that I keep having conversations with people about how can we best lower the standard," Jones said. "It's never about how can we best improve the instruction so [students with disabilities] can meet a high standard."