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Tiny Oklahoma District Fights State Grade Based on Disabled Students' Test Scores

Gary Young, the superintendent of the 100-student Peckham district in Newkirk, Okla., prides himself on his school being a welcoming place for students with disabilities, many of whom attend the K-8 district under the state's open-enrollment policy. 

But that openness has had a cost, he said; the state has given the K-8 district an "F" on its statewide accountability system. That's down from an B that the district received in the 2011-12 school year. Young says that's because he has 30 students in special education, many of whom have severe cognitive disabilities that should qualify them to take the state's alternate assessment. But only 10 percent of a district's students can take the alternate assessment and be counted as proficient for accountability purposes. Half of an Oklahoma school district's letter grade is determined by student tests scores. 

"I really don't care what they do to me," Young said in an interview with Education Week. "I'm not going to discriminate against these little children and their parents." 

At the same time, he said, it's not fair that the state doesn't account for his small district's special circumstances. The district has had a higher-than-average enrollment of special education students for some time, he said. Oklahoma allows parents to transfer with the permission of the receving district. "A lot of schools and superintendents won't accept transfers of special education kids," he said, but Peckham does. "The parents didn't feel like they were receiving what they needed" in their home districts, Young said.

In prior years, some of those students might have taken the state's modified assessments. They differed from alternate assessments in that they were intended for students who did not have severe cognitive disabilities but were still having trouble meeting grade-level standards. Oklahoma did away with its modified assessment in the 2013-14 school year. (Oklahoma received No Child Left Behind flexibility waivers from the U.S. Department of Education, and all of the states with those waivers had to commit to eliminating the modified tests by 2014-15. The U.S. Education Department argued that eliminating such tests would lead to higher academic standards for students with disabilities.)  

From the state's perspective, Young didn't ask for the waiver that would have allowed him to give more students the alternate assessment. Information about that waiver was sent out last May, said Todd Loftin, the state's executive director of assessment and instruction. It's also not clear if all of Peckham's special education students would have qualified for the state's alternate assessment for students with severe disabilities, Loftin said.

In an interview, Phil Bacharach, a spokesman for the state department of education, said that the A through F program "is purely for informational purposes. There's no punitive aspect." 

That's not the way Young feels. He said that when the district learned about a possible waiver, it was told by a state official that it was too late to ask for one. Parents of students with disabilities at the school have also been left feeling like they're the cause of the district's poor showing on the accountability system. 

"It is inappropriate...no, it is disgraceful to expect special needs students to be successful on a grade-level placement test when they have not been taught and likely cannot be taught at that level," parent Wendy Bond wrote in a letter to state superintendent Janet Barresi. Bond's daughter is a transfer student.  

Mr. Young said that he will continue lobbying for a change in grade. He was unsuccessful at trying to get the situation heard by the state board of education at a recent meeting.

"If there's a legitimate appeal, I think it should be granted," Young said. "I think they're hoping it will go away."

KFOR, the NBC affiliate in Oklahoma City, also did a story on the situation, which is embedded below. 

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