25 Aug District Takes Steps to Reverse S pecial Education Assessment (OR)

August 25, 2010

By: Jonathan Frochtzwajg
Source: The Sandy Post

When the state earlier this month released its yearly report evaluating Oregon’s schools by federal No Child Left Behind standards, the most glaring pattern to emerge from the Oregon Trail School District’s numbers was the poor performance on the state assessment test of the district’s special education students.

The report showed – at the elementary and middle school levels – not enough special ed students passed the test’s English language arts and mathematics sections.

At Sandy High, enough special ed students passed in English, but too few made the grade in math, and not enough of the students graduated.

Oregon Trail officials defended the district, arguing they’ve taken steps in recent years to improve special ed students’ performance, but the report doesn’t reflect that yet.

“It takes time for these systems to develop,” said Debbie Johnson, Oregon Trail’s director of teaching and learning. “It isn’t something where I can just turn a switch on and off and suddenly, it’s better.”

As evidence that the measures are working, Johnson pointed to what is, at least for special ed, the one shining light of the report: Enough special ed students at Sandy High passed the state test in English. Those students, said Paula Epp, Oregon Trail’s director of special education, are the beneficiaries of the district’s efforts in the past few years; their strong showing on the report, she said, is proof those efforts were effective.

Epp and Johnson said they expect to start to see more upward trends among special ed students on the report in coming years.

“We’ve got some significant projects going that show us that we’re turning the corner with some of these more difficult cases,” Johnson said.

One of those projects is a new monitoring system that aims to more closely track students’ progress. The district implemented the system in its elementary schools last year.

“We set an expectation for where kids should be when they leave every year, and we monitor those three times a year,” Johnson explained. “So now, suddenly, that data is being tracked, and we literally can find what’s working and the area we need to refocus our efforts on. So there aren’t any kids who are lost in the cracks this way.”

Johnson said the system may keep some students from being referred to special ed in the first place by flagging them when they’re having trouble in a specific subject at an early age, alerting district staff that they need to provide that student more instructional time in that subject before it academically handicaps them.

“We’re trying to go at this from both sides,” she said. “We’re trying to help shore up and close the gap of kids who are already identified as special ed, but we’re trying to catch kids before they fall.”

Another project that the district is working on–and that especially excited Johnson – is a program that will train teachers in a new literacy education strategy. The district will pilot the program at Sandy Grade this year.

“We’re looking at instruction – what can we do to improve our instruction in literacy – because we feel very strongly that strong skills in literacy translate to every other content area,” Johnson said.

Because special ed teachers pa rticipate in the same trainings as their counterparts in regular education, special ed students will reap the program’s benefits as much as their peers outside special ed, Johnson said.

“I anticipate, based on the research, and what I’ve seen, that that will be transformational in our schools,” she said.

A transformation may be needed to prevent some Oregon Trail schools from being penalized in the near future for their performance on the state’s report.

Under No Child Left Behind, schools must achieve goals in English, math, graduation/attendance and testing participation among all students – including groups such as students with disabilities.

As a result, a number of Oregon Trail schools were judged by the report as not having made adequate yearly progress, or AYP, solely because of the scores of their special education students.

That matters especially for the five schools in the district that receive federal Title I funding – based on their number of economically disadvantaged students – because those schools start getting penalties if they don’t make AYP for two consecutive years.

Two of the Oregon Trail schools that receive Title I funding – Sandy Grade and Welches Elementary – didn’t make AYP last year. If they don’t make the grade this year, they’ll face consequences next fall, but Johnson doesn’t anticipate that happening.

“Schools could potentially be on an improvement list, but I don’t see that happening in our district,” she said.

That’s in part because the Obama administration is trying to reform No Child Left Behind, so the way the feds evaluate schools may soon change.

&#x0 A;“I’m not sure what this is going to look like in a year, because all of it is being changed,” Johnson said.

Even if none of it is ultimately changed, though, Johnson is confident the district’s labors will pay off, and that the portrait of special education in Oregon Trail painted by next year’s report will look different than the picture drawn by this year’s numbers.

“I would be surprised if we had a repeat,” she said.

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