by Jazelle Hunt
NNPA Washington Correspondent
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – A new law for special education students in Louisiana is making waves among parents, education officials, and advocacy groups.
The legislation, H.B. 1015, allows special education teachers to circumvent state standardized test requirements and assume sole authority to promote a student who has scored below proficiency, even up to granting a high school diploma.
After Gov. Bobby Jindal signed the bill into law over the summer, several education and disability advocacy organizations, including the Education Trust, the National Center for Learning Disabilities, and Autism National Committee, objected.
They contend that the law encourages lower expectations for special education students, and offers a detrimental illusion of achievement. Proponents, on the other hand, believe it evens the playing field of academic achievement while allowing students’ work to represent them, as opposed to a high-stakes exam score.
“I feel like it’s a hindrance to students. A line needs to be drawn,” says Bryndan Bailey. Diagnosed with ADHD as a child, Bailey went through elementary, middle, and high school as a special education student. Now a student at Clatsop Community College in Oregon, he maintains a 3.7 GPA, without special accommodations or aids.
“I like when people expect a lot from me. I feel like [the exemption] causes more of a handicap to a person who already has a handicap.”
For most of his education, Bailey has had an IEP team overseeing his progress.
All special education students in federally-funded schools must have Individualized Education Plans, or IEPs that lay out accommodations and an evolving, personalized roadmap for special education students to achieve the same educational goals as their peers. For example, a dyslexic student may be allowed to take exams in private and have them read aloud as part of his or her IEP. IEP teams—comprised of the instructors, specialists, and/or caregivers involved in the student’s matriculation—continually collaborate on these plans.
Under H.B. 1015, IEP teams can determine whether to waive the state standardized exam requirements for a particular student—but only after that student performs below proficiency.
If exemption is granted, the IEP team must create “rigorous educational goals” that “promote college or workforce readiness.” The new plan must include alternative means of assessment; lesson plans; and personalized bare-minimum requirements. The student will be promoted or held back based on performance with these new goals.
In the case of high school seniors, exempted students must achieve their IEP goals, plus become employed and self-sufficient; demonstrate “specific employable skills;” or, be able to access needed services beyond graduation. The law also mandates that parents must be informed of how the different standards might affect college and career options. It doesn’t provide direction on what happens if an exempted high school graduate does not meet these post-grad requirements.
“In the long run, high school is preparing students for the real world. It’s not beneficial to have kids depend on [their IEPs], or use it as a copout, because your IEP is not going to help with everyday life problems,” Bailey says. “You’re not going to have a teacher to come to your boss and say, ‘Oh, he counted the change wrong because he’s dyslexic.’ That’s not how life works.”
Mercia Williams-Murray, a six-year middle and high school math and science special education teacher in Washington, D.C., agrees, adding that it’s especially troubling for Black and Latino boys, who are significantly more likely to be diagnosed and put into special education than others.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea, particularly when you’re dealing with a high population of Black kids, knowing that they are more likely to be identified as special needs, and therefore going to be disproportionately affected by a law like that,” she says, adding that finishing school with limited job options pushes boys of color closer to a life of crime.
“I think it not only lowers expectations for kids, but it also sets them up for failure beyond school. If anything, they need more discipline and to have the bar raised even higher, because everyone expects so little of them.”
Although there is debate about the merits of exemption, almost everyone agrees that high stakes state exams are problematic.
“The whole process of a test grading someone and telling you, hey, this is how intelligent they are based on these questions I asked them – that whole system is flawed in the first place,” says Bailey. “It doesn’t have anything to do with having an IEP or not, even someone with nothing wrong with them, per se, can still be subjected to look like they’re less than, or like they’re not as intelligent.”
Williams-Murray echoes the sentiment, adding that it is frustrating and disheartening for both students and teachers to miss the mark on state exams.
For this reason, Amy Angrand, a two-year special education kindergarten teacher in Maryland, believes that H.B. 1015 is a great opportunity for teachers and students to show their true capabilities.
“It would be great to eliminate the state test, because it doesn’t really show what they can do. Just through observation with my students, I can tell if they’re capable of taking one…and most of the time, they’re not ready for it,” she says, adding that teachers are offer more accurate evaluations of their students.
Angrand asserts that as long as standards remain high and teachers are provided adequate training, they can craft effective IEPs that prepare students for success without the need for stressful standardized exams.
“What Louisiana is doing is great. They’re saying, I’m not going to give you a scripted curriculum, I’m going to allow you to show me your craft. It can’t be cookie-cutter; that’s not what learning is,” she says. “I don’t think it would lower the standards. We have the same objectives in the curriculum as other students. What the state and government can do is give me the standard, and say look…. Your students have to be able to do this so if they go into any school, public, charter, or private, they can perform. Go.”
Louisiana’s graduation rate is 72 percent; 65 percent for Black students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The figure plummets to 33 percent for students with disabilities.
Although already passed, H.B. 1015 may violate federal law if implemented as is; states are required to uphold the same standards for all students, including those with IEPs.
Following Gov. Jindal’s signature, the Department of Education Office of Elementary and Secondary Education sent a warning letter to the Louisiana Department of Education.
Citing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and other legislation, the Office wrote: “A significant concern with H.B. 1015 is that it treats students with disabilities differently because it permits them to be promoted, graduate, and receive a diploma when they have failed to pass State assessments and meet benchmarks that other students are required to meet.
“Giving IEP Teams authority to apply different standards…will result in those students being taught to different, and potentially lower, standards than students without disabilities, depriving them of the same opportunities to learn that are available to their non-disabled peers.”