One of every 20 students in Connecticut is being directed to take standardized tests created for children with either severe or moderate disabilities, a significant increase in the past five years. Poor results on these alternative or modified tests will not penalize a school district, unlike weak results on standardized tests that the majority of students in the state must take.
Although overall enrollment in the Connecticut schools has declined over the past five years, the number of children identified as having severe learning disabilities who took the Skills Checklist rose by almost 32 percent, or 900 students.
Similarly, the number of students who took the Modified Assessments in the past two years — when the federal goverment started allowing this option — rose by 7 percent, or more than 1,300 students.
“It’s essentially a loophole around the accountability measures in No Child Left Behind,” said Robert Cotto Jr., a senior policy fellow with Voices for Children and an elected member of the Hartford Board of Education. “These students, simply put, don’t count.”
Cotto said, as a result, several things could be happening: a district’s performance results are distorted, there’s an incentive to direct more students to these alternate assessments and these alternatives might be the appropriate measurement tool.
The state recently got a waiver to federal requirements in the No Child Left Behind law. Any student who takes the alternative or modified tests and fails won’t hurt a district’s rating, while students who do well on the tests will slightly help a district. The waiver puts limits on how many disabled students that pass the test can boost a districts score.
And while State Board of Education members were told Wednesday about this increase in participation in alternative tests, the Department’s special education bureau chief also told them classification is a local decision.
“It is not in our purview to override… Our purview is to make sure [local officials] are trained to make that appropriate decision,” said Anne Louise Thompson. She noted that her department does look for warning signs that too many students are taking alternative assessments. “We just do red flags.”
She said every year there are a group of districts that prompt questions about whether students were classified appropriately. She said when there is a bump in the number of students scoring proficiently on alternative tests, a closer look is typically warranted.
Cotto, with Voices, an education policy advocacy group, said he’s concerned that some districts are routing too many students to non-high-stakes tests to skew performance results.
He pointed to Hartford, where most of the noted gains are, he said, from shunting students away from the tests that count. “It’s addition through subtraction.”
In a recent report Cotto wrote, he pointed out the discrepancy in results between New Haven and Bridgeport, two school districts with 12 percent of students with learning disabilities. In New Haven, 9 percent of the district’s students take modified assessments compared to 4 percent in Bridgeport.
Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor said Wednesday he plans to look at the reason for the increases.
“We want to make sure the system is working well,” he said, noting a new computerized assessment will begin in two years.
Several state board members expressed concern that the screening process was actually preventing some students from taking the modified tests.
“I have some concerns in how we are choosing students. That sounds alarming to be quite frank,” Ferdinand Risco Jr., a member of the state board and New Haven school board, said following the presentation on the oversight of these classifications.
But Sheryl Lazarus, a senior research associate with the University of Minnesota’s National Center on Educational Outcomes, which analyzes testing trends surrounding disabled students, has a different take.
“It could be that not enough students are being identified, but it tends to be the other way around where states are including too many students [in the disabled category],” she said during an telephone interview.
The most recent national data on how many students are taking modified assessments, which is from 2009, does not show Connecticut’s numbers of exempt student to be unusually high