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Minnesota Special Education Students Left Behind

January 29, 2009 By Kyle Edwards, Undergraduate Research Fellow

The federally mandated "No Child Left Behind" program is failing Minnesota's special education students. During the last 10 years, special education enrollment in the United States has outpaced general enrollment. Even though, according to the Minnesota Department of Education, special education students represent about 11 percent to 12 percent of the student body, the NCLB law lacks the flexibility or structure to effectively test and track these students.

NCLB not only negatively affects special education students, but also leaves all Minnesota schools and students, at a disadvantage. Minnesota's goal should be to build quality education for all students, but with NCLB, the goal remains out of reach.

NCLB's state goal is to ensure all students become proficient with math and reading skills by the 2014 school year. In this sense, "proficient" means performing math and reading at grade level. Students are given tests once each year, and their scores are divided into sub-groups by race, income, special education, along with other categories.

All sub-groups must make "Adequate Yearly Progress" (AYP) for the school as a whole to avoid being placed under sanctions. However, for special education students, only up to two percent can be exempt from the high stakes test.

For example, in the 2006-2007 school year, five of seven Rochester schools failed to make AYP because an insufficient number of special education students passed the standardized math or reading tests.

Because special needs students are not passing tests that Anna Braun, a Minnesota special education teacher, determines "aren't fair to the students in the first place," the schools face sanctions or reorganization.

NCLB also affects how educators teach special education students. Because so few students are allowed to be exempt from the standardized tests, special education teachers must change lesson plans to accommodate the law. Instead of teaching or adapted lesson plans or functional skills that will help the students learn social and employment expertise, teachers are forced to administer the tests on mathematics and reading comprehension. Instead of curriculum determined by bureaucrats in Washington DC, Braun, who is licensed as Specific Learning Disabilities teacher, wishes "students would be evaluated according to what they need, especially in special education."

The current situation leaves much to be desired; education experts have come out in hoards against NCLB's policies. An entire school's AYP should not be discredited simply because special education students were unable to become proficient in math or reading. Special education students should not be administered the same high stakes, standardized tests as regular education students. These tests inaccurately gauge the special education student's progress, while hampering other aspects of the school's resources. More control should be returned to the local teachers, who know the students best.

Currently, special education students either pass the test or don't. As an alternative, a separate growth standard should give students, teachers, and their schools credit for making progress toward "proficiency."

In 2008, only 62 percent of Minnesota schools met AYP. This is not a true gauge of the teachers and students in Minnesota, and NCLB's testing standards and a lack of state investment are disrupting Minnesota's tradition of strong schools.  Accountability is important, but NCLB fails to provide both accountability and successful outcomes.

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