U.S. Secretary of Education: Children with Disabilities Held to Same Standards

From Joy Resmovits at the Huffington Post:

Should students with disabilities be held to the same academic standards as their peers? And should schools and teachers be held accountable for their progress?

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan answered that question with a resounding yes, proposing a seemingly wonky regulatory change that could have profound effects on some of the nation’s most vulnerable learners.

Since President Barack Obama came into office, his administration has upheld and advanced policies that have increased the stakes of standardized testing, arguing that student progress ultimately matters above all other concerns. Policies such as the Race to the Top competition derive from the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, which tied federal school aid to standardized test results. A subsequent 2003 regulation allowed states to use “alternate achievement standards” for up to 1 percent of students with the most challenging cognitive disabilities.

In 2007, the Education Department tweaked the law to allow 2 percent of students per state to learn a curriculum based on “modified” objectives and be measured on an aligned test. The feds based that number on the “percent of students who may not reach grade-level achievement standards within the same time frame as other students, even after receiving the best-designed instructional interventions from highly trained teachers,” the department wrote in the Federal Register. States could use the modified tests to measure student performance of these 2 percent under No Child Left Behind.

Since then, a consortium of advocacy groups representing special education students, such as the Easter Seals and the National Center for Learning Disabilities, have pushed to end the allowance. “The expectation should be that students presently taking the … [alternate exams] will participate in the general assessment, with appropriate accommodations as needed,” the group wrote in July.

Now the Secretary of Education is responding to those pleas. On Friday, the administration posted a proposal to roll back the rule, which would let states already administering alternate tests use them for the last time this school year. The administration can act on its own accord and is gathering feedback from the public until Oct. 7 before making a final decision.

“We have to expect the very best from our students and tell the truth about student performance, to prepare them for college and career,” Duncan said in a statement. “That means no longer allowing the achievement of students with disabilities to be measured by these alternate assessments aligned to modified achievement standards. This prevents these students from reaching their full potential, and prevents our country from benefitting [sic] from that potential.”

Shortly after Duncan released the proposal, he garnered praise from Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who chairs the Senate education committee, and groups representing student disabilities.

“The 2 percent rule was bad in 2007 because it was basically a punt that allowed the academic progress of a million kids with disabilities to not matter,” said Katy Neas, who leads government relations for Easter Seals. “It was bad from the beginning. It needs to end.”

Others were less sure. “WTF?” tweeted columnist Sarah Littman in response to the news. “HAS @ARNEDUNCAN EVER TALKED TO SPED [special education] KIDS? IS HE [EFFING] SERIOUS?!!!”

The government is aware of these concerns, said Michael Yudin, acting assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, in an interview. “This is not going to be easy … I do talk to parents of kids with disabilities every day — my staff does, my team does,” he said in response to the tweet. “Whether a kid is two or three grade levels down, whether the kid has an [individualized education plan] or not, you still have the kind of challenges: How would you provide the right types of support and instruction to make sure that kid accesses grade-level content? This is definitely going to be hard but we also firmly believe this is doable.”

He added that states would still be able to count 1 percent of kids, those with the most severe disabilities, as proficient on alternate assessments even under the new regulations (the 1 percent rule is a different regulation that the administration isn’t proposing to tweak).

The National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, plans to submit public comments in opposition to the proposal, according to the group’s policy analyst John Riley. “We’ve always opposed these arbitrary percentage caps when it comes to assessing students with disabilities,” Riley said. “Who makes up this 1 percent, this 2 percent number?” Schools should make these determinations on their own, he said.

For the NEA, the question comes down to aspiration versus reality. “We’re talking about students with disabilities who have documented life-impacting issues, that if they could do everything else the other students were doing, they’d be doing that,” Riley said. “We have to take an individualized look at how we’re assessing them … Some students don’t fall on the normal bell curve.”

The administration wants to reverse the rule now because tests are evolving, Yudin said. “When this policy was originally developed in 2007, we were in a different world,” he said. “General assessments were difficult for struggling students with disabilities to access.” New standardized tests aligned to the Common Core State Standards, he said, “were required to be designed in a way that is accessible to all” and are more promising.

“It’s time,” Yudin said. “We’re all moving to college- and career-ready standards.”

Since 2007, only 16 states have used alternative standards and assessments, Yudin said. Next year, only 14 states have plans to use such exams.

Still, said NCLD’s Lindsay Jones, “We agree that they need to be eradicated.” Jones said she’s seen many examples of districts that placed many more students into alternate exams “than we would think need to be there” in order to mask low performance on standardized tests.

“That had a real negative effect on these students,” she said.

The direction the Secretary of Education wants to take is going to have great consequences. Children that have disabilities that have been pushed through grades because of the old standardized testing could be stalled in the same grade now because of the new rule. However, the administration has a good point in that we need to be honest with our children so that they can have a realistic world view. That being said, schools being so college/career centric may not be the best policy for every child. It will be interesting to see how this rule is implemented and if many schools refuse to follow it.

Photo courtesy of A Game of Roles.

Wednesday’s Children and the Law News Roundup

photo courtesy of: http://www.centerforce.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Youth-Court-7743-600x399.jpg

In Rural Georgia, One County Emerges as a Leader in Keeping Juveniles Out of the Courtroom, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange

This small community to the east of Atlanta isn’t necessarily the kind of locale one would associate with progressive juvenile justice policies. Yet here, deep in the rustic Georgian countryside, the local juvenile court has embraced an innovative model where keeping kids out of trouble, the courtroom and especially detention has become an utmost priority.

Among the first of many detention alternative programs in Newton County was its specialized juvenile drug court, which officials say was the very first of its kind outside any urban area in the nation. Established in 1998, the court is still in operation nearly 15 years later.

And in the county of approximately 100,000, it’s not the only so-called community-based juvenile diversion program, either. A restorative justice program, a truancy intervention program, a program designed specifically for female offenders and programs for both pre-adjudicated and post-adjudicated offenders are all up and running in the jurisdiction.

Last year, 756 young people were referred to the Newton County Juvenile Court. Of those, 58 percent had their cases either dismissed or diverted.

According to Roberts, the purpose of the programs is simple: To keep youth out of juvenile courtrooms altogether.

Special Education Office Moves Toward Measuring Student Outcomes, Education Week

Thirty-nine states have garnered a “meets requirements” rating from the U.S. Department of Education’s office of special education programs on the quality of their programs for students with disabilities.  The federal special education office is moving to a system that will require states to demonstrate how they are working to improve the educational outcomes for students with disabilities.

“We’ve been looking at the data that shows that even though we have been improving in terms of compliance, because that’s what we’ve been focusing on, we were not seeing that same type of improvement across reading, and math, and graduation rates, and post-school outcomes for students with disabilities,” Musgrove told the audience at the IDEA Leadership Conference on July 29. “We need to focus our energies on the areas that are most in need of improvement.”

Mississippi and South Carolina both earned a “meets requirements” rating for the state performance plan, which is the top category. (The other ratings, in order of severity, are “needs assistance,” “needs intervention,” and “needs substantial intervention.”)

However, those states were recently singled out in a report from the National Center for Learning Disabilities on their gaps in graduation rates and dropout rates between students with disabilities and the general student population. Using state-reported data, the NCLD report found that South Carolina had a dropout rate for students with learning disabilities of 49 percent. In Mississippi, 75 percent of all students earned a diploma in 2010-11, compared to 23 percent of students with disabilities.

Eleven states—Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Texas, and West Virginia—fell into the needs assistance category this year. The District of Columbia was in the needs intervention category, for the seventh year in a row.

 

Tuesday’s Children and the Law News Roundup

Juvenile Justice secretary meets with Capitol protesters, Tallahasee.com

Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Wansley Walters listened to the personal stories of several activists who have resided in Gov. Rick Scott’s office since Tuesday of last week.

While the group, mostly comprised of members of social activists the Dream Defenders, is adamant about working to abolish Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, they also have a developed focus on other laws that they say adversely affect the youth in the state.

They had the chance to outline what they would like to see from Walters in her capacity as the DJJ secretary.

Protesters are also working to remove zero tolerance laws where youth are suspended from school for minor offenses and stopping the school to prison pipeline that they say often push youth into prison with adults.

 

Governor directs juvenile justice chief to meet with protesters, Miami Herald

Gov. Rick Scott met Monday with his juvenile justice secretary, Wansley Walters, and directed her to meet with a group of student protesters who occupy part of the state Capitol for a sixth straight day
in opposition to Florida’s self-defense law.

Scott met with Walters at DJJ’s Tallahassee offices on Monday morning and they emerged to speak to reporters afterward in a hastily-called media availability.

Scott  met with the protesters last Thursday night in his office and rejected their request that he call a special legislative session to repeal the self-defense law, known as “stand your ground.” The law is widely perceived to be at the heart of George Zimmerman’s decisions on the night he fatally shot an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin, during an encounter in Sanford in February 2012. Zimmerman was found not guilty of second-degree murder.

“I believe in our stand your ground and our self-defense laws in our state,” Scott said. “But I appreciate the fact that they expressed their concerns.” The governor reiterated his suggestion that the young protesters should focus their concerns on state legislators who passed the self-defense law in 2005.

 

Michigan juvenile lifers: Joint hearing scheduled on proposed changes to unconstitutional state law, MLive

LANSING, MI — State lawmakers are expected to hear testimony next month on proposed changes to Michigan’s “juvenile lifer” law, which was deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court more than a year ago.

Chairs of the House Criminal Justice and Senate Judiciary committees have scheduled a joint session on August 14 for testimony — but not a vote — on bipartisan legislation to update state law in response to the ruling.

Michigan law gives prosecutors broad authority to seek adult charges against minors convicted of certain crimes, including first-degree murder. If convicted, those minors face mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision released in June of 2012, said that such mandatory sentences amount to an unconstitutional form of cruel and unusual punishment that fail to acknowledge the potential for character and cognitive development in young people.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — More than a quarter of offenders in West Virginia’s juvenile detention facilities are actually young adults.

State law keeps many juvenile offenders in the custody of the Division of Juvenile Services system until they’re 21 years old. That might need to change, said Denny Dodson, deputy director of the division.

“We either need to change the code or have separate facilities . . .” Dodson said in a recent interview with the Daily Mail.

There’s no policy to keep adult and juvenile offenders separate in the facilities. At one point, advocates said it was good to mix offenders of different ages, Dodson said.

“We took some heat in trying to keep them separate. Obviously, we’re taking some heat for not keeping them separate now.”

A judge recently called the idea into question during a hearing about safety at the Harriet B. Jones Treatment Center, a juvenile corrections facility for sexual offenders and others.

 

The Prison Rape Elimination Act Has Been Law for 10 Years; Time to Make It Policy, Takepart.com

Ten years ago this week, Congress unanimously approved the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) to end sexual violence behind bars.

The law arrived too late for Rodney Hulin, whose mother, Linda Bruntmyer, testified before Congress in 2002 about the brutal rapes of her son in adult prison and his suicide as a result.

In a grievance letter to prison officials, 16-year-old Rodney wrote, “I have been sexually and physically assaulted several times, by several inmates. I am afraid to go to sleep, to shower, and just about everything else. I am afraid that when I am doing these things, I might die at any minute. Please, sir, help me.”