12/19/13 5:12 AM EST
When the Baltimore City school district learned of its scores on the district version of the National Assessment of Educational Progress this week, the city hailed its success in reading as a positive sign: There was a 7-point jump in eighth-grade reading scores. Fourth-grade reading scores ticked up slightly, too.
Some 14 percent of fourth-graders scored at or above proficient in reading, also an indication of progress.
But the scores are tainted by one key omission: Seventy-four percent of eighth-graders enrolled in special education didn’t take the reading test. And since special ed students tend to score poorly, Baltimore’s scores on the Trial Urban District Assessment were inflated significantly, testing experts say.
The high number of special education students excluded from the testing pool reflects a statewide policy. Maryland is one of a few states where reading comprehension passages can be read aloud to some special education students on state tests. When it comes time to take national tests such as TUDA that don’t allow the accommodation, schools must choose for those students to either take the test without the help or exclude them altogether.
On the whole, Maryland excluded 66 percent of special education fourth-graders from taking the test in 2013.
This stands in contrast to the national exclusion rate. Across the U.S., 14 percent of fourth-graders students selected to take the NAEP reading test are identified as having special needs; only 2 percent of them are excluded from the exam because of that disability. In Baltimore, in contrast, 18 percent of students selected to take the fourth-grade reading test had special needs and the state excluded nearly all of them; in the end, special needs students made up just 4 percent of the city’s fourth-grade reading test sample.
The exclusion policy has set off a debate in the state, where in November one state delegate called the policy a “cheating scandal” and called for a hearing on the topic. AndThe Baltimore Sun has put a spotlight on the issue. State Superintendent Lillian Lowery has said she plans to include more special education students on NAEP and TUDA but has yet to outline a concrete plan for doing so.
The national exams aren’t high-stakes tests. A high or low score doesn’t affect individual students or schools. But the tests offer a yardstick to measure progress over time and a comparison with the rest of the country. And they’re good for bragging rights, of which Maryland has many: The state’s fourth-grade reading scores have been tied for first place in the country under NAEP, and Maryland has reigned No. 1 on Education Week’s “Quality Counts” rating for five years straight.
But using a different estimate of Maryland’s performance, a full-population estimate statistically reworked to estimate how the full body of students would perform, rather than a sample, both Baltimore and Maryland’s fourth-grade reading scores would drop by more than 7 points. That doesn’t sound like much on a 500-point test, but it would move Maryland from the top of the pile down to about 14th place in NAEP state rankings.
The National Assessment Governing Board, which sets NAEP policy, created a set of rules to promote including more students in 2010. Most areas with high exclusion rates have brought them down, and the national percentage of fourth-grade students with disabilities excluded from NAEP has fallen from 61 percent to 16 percent over the years.
But implementing the rules has proved tricky. NAGB relies on states and districts to voluntarily adopt the new rules.
At a meeting earlier this month, NAGB discussed the read-aloud policy and how to bring states further into compliance.
“There’s this impasse,” NAGB’s Larry Feinberg said, adding that he doesn’t expect the organization to change its stance on the read-aloud assist anytime soon.
Jack Buckley, commissioner of the Institute of Education Sciences, which oversees the administration of NAEP, said the organization has made an effort to put the new rules into place but, at the end of the day, “we have to respect state policies.”
But he acknowledged that “other cities that maybe have lower exclusion rates aren’t as happy by the comparisons.”
It’s not just a problem with NAEP, Buckley noted — NCLB testing has faced similar issues, and the Common Core tests are currently grappling with whether to allow read-aloud accommodations as well. States’ approaches to testing special education students differ, and right now there is no consensus about what accommodations are and aren’t appropriate.
Maryland says it is moving to include more students. Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Education, said the state will keep working to reduce exclusion rates but added that “exclusion decisions are made at the local level.”
Baltimore, meanwhile, awaits guidance from the state. Once the policy is clarified, the district will review each special ed student’s plan and decide which students will continue to be excluded.
“These kinds of things can’t change overnight,” said Jennifer Bell-Ellwanger, Baltimore’s interim education chief of staff. “We want to include students but we also want them to put their best foot forward here.” The debate over read-aloud accommodations has been playing out with PARCC, the Common Core testing group Maryland will be a part of, and Bell-Ellwanger says the state is looking to PARCC as a “gauge” for what they should do.
Though Maryland stands out, the state isn’t alone on the exclusion issue. Kentucky has brought down its exclusion rates in recent years, but Jefferson County’s 4 percent special education exclusion rate in fourth-grade reading still runs slightly higher than the statewide rate of 3 percent, and higher than the national rate of 2 percent.
From the standpoint of educating students, allowing the read-aloud accommodations in the first place is a problem, Richard Innes of the Kentucky Bluegrass Institute said.
“What they’re getting is a spoken-word comprehension test,” Innes said. “The idea that the state of Kentucky has taken those spoken-word comprehension scores and averaged them in with reading scores [on state tests] is extraordinarily misleading.”
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