29 Mar Push to Raise Profile of Special-Ed Testing Pays Off

March 29, 2010

By: Olympia Meola
Source: Richmond Times-Dispatch

A few Richmonders have pushed their concerns over special-education testing from local blogs to the state law books.

After the four locals launched a concentrated effort to raise the profile of alternative assessments given to thousands of young special-education students each year, Gov. Bob McDonnell on March 9 signed a bill requiring school superintendents to give the state an annual justification that each student using the Virginia Grade Level Alternative assessment meets participation criteria.

Moreover — and most important to the advocates — it sends a message to schools that state lawmakers are keying into the rapid increase in the test’s use.

Last summer, teachers and parents approached former Richmond School Board member Carol A.O. Wolf with concern, she said, that schools were funneling students into taking the alternative assessment who do not need it in order to help test scores.

The assessment is designed for students in grades three through eight who are physically, cognitively or emotionally unable to take the Standards of Learning. It assesses students through a portfolio of work collected throughout the year, rather than relying on results from single SOL tests.

But the number of VGLA collections has skyrocketed from 2,031 in 2004 to 35,962 in 2007-2008, prompting state education officials to increase efforts to make sure it’s clear under which circumstances students need that test.

Wolf, meanwhile, requested data from the Virginia Department of Education and turned to John Butcher, a retired state bureaucrat who delves into Richmond-related government issues on his blog, crankytaxpayer.org, to help crunch the numbers.

"When we did the math we realized we had such high numbers of kids participating in Richmond, being put on the VGLA, that’s sort of what started it," Wolf said. Soon, it was not about Richmond anymore, "it was about the state."

Between them — through their blogs — they posted charts, graphs and lengthy analysis that drew the attention of Richmonders Arthur L. Burton and John Lloyd, also engaged in city education issues. Before long, Burton approached Del. John M. O’Bannon III, R-Henrico, with the research and he agreed to sponsor legislation to address it.

"We followed the process carefully," Burton said. "We did a bit of politicking to get this thing through."

As part of that, they got a close-up of the negotiations involved in successful legislation. What was filed at the onset of the session looked different from what made it out.

They originally wanted an audit of any school district with more than 3 percent of their special-education students using the alternative assessment in a year, but this session was not kind to legislation that would require additional resources.

Still, they’re glad what limped out at least raised the profile of the test and includes language stating that the legislature intends fo r the Education Department to phase out the alternative assessment "as soon as is feasible."

"I wasn’t very happy with the toothless bill, but for the first time, it’s not bad," Burton said.

O’Bannon thought the final product was not "quite as far as we wanted to go" but said "at least it’s a step."

For Wolf, who tirelessly forwarded information to anyone she thought could help their cause, the first step is important.

"When you put children into special education who should not be in special education, you’re making it more financially difficult for the school district and making it harder for the children who really do need special education," she said.

"I’m pleased with progress anytime we get it, but I’m especially pleased here because it shows the members of the Virginia General Assembly and the governor heard us."

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