If the U.S. Department of Education doesn’t soon renew testing exemptions for students with disabilities, hundreds of schools across the state and dozens of schools locally could fail federal standards.
“It’s always around this time of year that we hear what amendments the federal government will accept,” said Melissa Fincher, associate superintendent for assessment and accountability at the Georgia Department of Education. “Students with disabilities learn differently than general students and sometimes have trouble demonstrating what they learned, and this flexibility allows schools to still pass the standards.”
Schools nationwide are required to achieve certain goals for state tests, graduation rates, test participation and attendance to pass Adequate Yearly Progress under federal No Child Left Behind legislation.
Schools that don’t make the cut for two years face consequences and are placed on a “needs improvement” list, requiring them to offer programs such as after-school tutoring. A school must make AYP two years in a row to get off the list.
The students with disabilities subgroup often is the hardest to test and the reason many schools fail. During the past few years, federal guidelines have allowed an 18 percent “bump” for Georgia schools, making up for the subgroup’s low test scores.
“I’ve been worried about their decision because I’m not hearing good news,” state schools Superintendent Kathy Cox said at last week’s public hearing at Lanier Career Academy in Gainesville. “The feds admitted they were asking us to test students who weren’t going to pass and gave us the bump, but this administration is not willing to do that.”
Georgia schools were supposed to develop and implement the Georgia Alternative Assessment this year to more effectively test students with disabilities. Although the test was created, it couldn’t be distributed or scored due to budget cuts.
“The new test is appropriate for this group, but we weren’t ready to give it,” Cox said. “It’s not fair to judge schools on a test when we know a subgroup isn’t able to pass it to begin with, and that’s the part that makes me scratch my head.”
If the federal flexibility exemption is ignored, Hall County Superintendent Will Schofield said 15 schools could fail AYP this year.
“We’d go from a couple of our schools worried about AYP to 15. It’s that big of a difference,” he said to the school board last week.
“Special needs is the most challenging group to get up to grade level. There’s a lot of debate going on in Washington, and we’ve talked to the state, but we’re just not sure right now.”
All Hall County schools met AYP this year. Four Hall schools came off the list in October, with only South Hall Middle still on the list, though it met AYP this year. East Hall Middle, East Hall High, North Hall Middle and White Sulphur Elementary came off the needs improvement list.
Although most schools in the Gainesville system passed AYP, Gainesville Middle School failed the standard for a fourth consecutive year. The math scores of one special needs student kept the school from meeting the benchmark in October, though it requested a rescore of the test last summer, officials said.
Gainesville Superintendent Merrianne Dyer said she’s especially worried about her schools if the flexibility isn’t approved.
“We’d be affected even more than Hall County Schools because of our diversity and large subgroups,” she said. “In fact, I think we have the most diversity of all our region.”
This year, the testing objective also moved from 59.5 percent passing to 67.6 percent, which adds to the concern about scores from the students with disabilities subgroup.
“This year, because the annual measurable objective went up, a lot of schools are relying on the federal flexibility,” said Michael Catledge, a data specialist for Pioneer RESA, an educational service agency that serves 14 school systems in Northeast Georgia.
“Without it, will they be able to make it? The big deal is that, for example, Hall County had no schools not meet AYP last year, but this year it could go more than eight schools. It looks like Hall County is doing something wrong, but really the rules have just changed.”