WASHINGTON (AP) – Education Department officials have decided children with the most severe learning problems can be held to a different academic standard than their peers – a move that will ease pressure on schools struggling to make yearly progress.

The new department rule to be announced within days would affect a limited number of students deemed to have “significant cognitive disabilities” by their states. It would allow those students to be tested against standards appropriate for their intellectual development. And, more significantly, their scores would be counted as part of their school’s performance.

Currently, students who take tests based on different standards can’t be considered “proficient.” This penalizes schools as they add up yearly achievement, which is critical because schools that receive federal aid for the poor but fail to make adequate yearly progress face increasing sanctions from the government.

Many schools have failed to make annual progress because their disabled students didn’t score high enough on tests or because too few of those students participated.

Ross Wiener, policy director for the advocacy group, The Education Trust, said the rule will offer clarity and put more focus on raising achievement.

“That’s important, because then you get into the hard work of, how do we do it?” he said. “That’s the real challenge.”

Education Department officials said they tried to find balance, recognizing the call for different standards in limited cases without eroding school accountability for all students.

The rule does not spell out which children meet the definition of having a significant cognitive disability, leaving that to the states with some narrow limits. The plan also requires that any alternative standards for students must be tied to state academic content.

State leaders and education groups negotiated with department officials for months on the language, part of a long-standing, complex debate over how to fairly test disabled children.

“Schools around the country will not be identified by their states as ‘needing improvement’ if their students with the most significant disabilities are unable to take the same tests as their peers,” Education Secretary Rod Paige said. He said the rule also “protects children with disabilities from being wrongly excluded from accountability systems that provide valuable information to parents and educators.”

The rule targets kids with the most severe learning problems who are required to take tests in their grades. It would affect only 1 percent of students at the state and school district levels. That’s about 10 percent of all special education students.

States could appeal for a higher amount. Other children could take alternative tests, as they can now, but they would still be held to the same grade-level standards as other students.

James Wendorf, executive director of the National Center for Learning Disabilities, generally embraced the rules. He said concerns raised about children’s performance in special education should put additional focus on basic quality of education.

By 2005-06, all states must test students in grades three though eight in math and reading annually and at least once during high school. The No Child Left Behind law of 2002 also requires a science test at least once in elementary, middle and high school by 2007-08. The goal is to ensure all children are proficient in reading and math by 2014.



On the Net:

No Child Left Behind law: http://www.ed.gov/nclb/

AP-ES-12-04-03 0155EST



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