MCA II testing frustrating for teachers and parents of special needs students

Take the Rushford-Peterson Public School district as an example. Because of special education student scores on the new MCA-II tests, the state education department said the district was not meeting achievement levels as defined by No Child Left Behind.

That's frustrating for Jo Anne Agrimson, a language arts teacher in the district. She says the district's good work with special education students has made Rushford-Peterson a kind of magnet for special education students.

"Don't punish my school because we have such a wonderful special education program," said Agrimson. "I would like to see that these students' tests aren't held against the school."

Education commissioner
Minnesota Education Commissioner Alice Seagren.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

Agrimson is part of Minnesota Public Radio's Public Insight Network, one of thousands of Minnesotans who help inform Minnesota Public Radio News' reporting on education and other issues. She responded to our call to discuss the results of the tougher MCA-II standardized tests, and help us understand why so many Minnesota schools were found not to be making adequate yearly progress as a result.

Agrimson was just one of several members of our audience who told us that requiring most special needs students to take the MCA-II's sets many of them up for failure. They also disagreed with the notion that a school's ranking can be based, in part, on results of special education students.

Her frustration is shared by many, including the state's top education official.

"I have a son who is handicapped," said Alice Seagren, Minnesota's Commissioner of Education. "I have been frustrated with this testing scheme."

Seagren said that she has "railed quite a bit about it."

But Seagren says the standards under No Child Left Behind have worked to raise academic levels for all children, including special education children.

"We find ourselves in the position of having to explain when a school doesn't make AYP (average yearly progress) because of special education student scores."

"Our position is that we want to help the districts analyze who these kids are and how we can help these kids achieve," she says

Special education is a broad category that covers students who must overcome a barrier to learning. Those barriers can vary widely, ranging from physical disabilities to emotional disorders and includes cognitive disorders and all forms of autism.

The new MCA-II test measures whether schools are meeting federal No Child Left Behind Standards. The term used is meeting "adequate yearly progress". All students, including subgroups of students such as special education students, must perform to that level. If one subgroup does not, that's enough for the school to fail meeting the No Child Left Behind Standard. The idea is to ensure that no classification of student is being ignored in assessing a school's performance, said Jessie Montano, the state Education Department's director of No Child Left Behind programs.

"In most cases, special education students should have the same access to state standards." she said. Montano said that many students with special needs have the intellectual capability to take the test.

Just as the educational push in recent years as been to have special needs students mainstreamed in regular class rooms -- the desire is also there to make sure these children also participate in the test, according to Montano. But school districts do have an option at testing time. They can give a percentage of special education students an alternative test - one that is modified to measure basic skills for a range of grades, kindergarten to 3rd grade, for example, rather than standards for a single grade, according to Montano. But the vast majority of special education students have to take the standard test, according to state rules.

"We can't get the number of kids we should in the (alternative testing) program," said Tom Hegranes, Director of Special Education for the Minneapolis School District.

In Minneapolis, 51 schools did not make adequate yearly progress. Five of those did so solely because the special education students in the school didn't make the mark.

"We find ourselves in the position of having to explain when a school doesn't make AYP because of special education student scores," he said.

Some Minneapolis schools serve as magnets for a particular type of special needs student. A program called Citywide places a student with, say, hearing impairment in one school and those with down syndrome in another. Margaret Sullivan is a member of Minnesota Public Radio's Public Insight Network, who wrote to tell us about the Minneapolis school her child attends. Her child has autism and is in the Citywide program.

"Some of the schools with the Citywide programs have very high needs students who are at a different level. You are going to be lucky if some of them get to the third grade reading level." said Sullivan. "Evaluating those students using NCLB (no Child Left Behind) is kind of strange and awkward."

Jessie Montano, with the Minnesota Department of Education said that in most cases when schools fail to make adequate yearly progress, testing of special education students isn't the only reason. Montano says any school that believes a high number of special needs students caused it to miss making adequate yearly progress can appeal to the state education department.

Still, Hegranes with the Minneapolis school district, said he would like to see the tests adjusted to the learning level of the student.

But Commissioner Seagren said that the federal regulations don't permit that. No Child Left Behind mandates that all students perform at grade level by 2014. Seagren acknowledges more discussion is needed at the federal level.

"We need to work with the federal government and special education advocates to create a realistic system to account for special education students," she said.

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