New York State School Boards Association

U.S. DOE denies NYS waiver on testing of disabled students

by Cathy Woodruff

On Board Online • June 29, 2015

By Cathy Woodruff
Senior Writer

Federal education officials have denied New York's request for more leeway to test disabled students based on their developmental level rather than their chronological age.

In a letter to Acting Education Commissioner Elizabeth Berlin this month, the U.S. Department of Education also rejected the state's request to give new English speakers two years, instead of just one, before they are required to take the state's grades 3-8 English language arts exams.

Both requests were aimed at reducing stress on students and yielding more useful results. State officials say that federal rules that require testing students at their chronological age, with narrow exceptions for students with very severe disabilities, set up some disabled students for failure and turn the tests into stressful guessing games. School officials in districts with many immigrant students say one year often is not enough for new arrivals to be ready to take language arts exams written in English.

The federal testing requirements are in regulations associated with the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, commonly known as No Child Left Behind.

The Regents sought a waiver for "students whose cognitive and intellectual disabilities preclude their meaningful participation in chronological grade level instruction" but who do not qualify for an alternative state assessment.

New York education officials also argued that tests that are far out of line with a student's cognitive level provide little useful information about student growth for the purposes of evaluating teachers or improving instruction.

"Those kids feel they are failures, and there is no reason at all why they should have to take that test," Regent Roger Tilles of Long Island said in December 2013.

But some national civil rights advocates contend that more flexibility would lead to inappropriately low standards for some students and deny their parents a true picture of their educational progress.

In the letter to Berlin, U.S. Assistant Education Secretary Deborah Delisle said the requirements are "necessary to ensure that teachers and parents of all students, including (English learners) and students with disabilities, have information on their students' proficiency and progress in reading/language arts and mathematics" and "to ensure that schools are held accountable for the academic achievement of all students."

New York initially sought the changes in early 2014. State education officials temporarily withdrew their request last year to clear the way for renewal of the state's existing ESEA waiver in time for the 2014-15 school year. The request related to testing of disabled students and English language learners was resubmitted in August 2014.

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