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Teen columnist: Fix NCLB to let disabled students succeed on tests

Across the nation, thousands if not millions of students have been set up to fail.

They have done nothing wrong, committed no offense, yet stand to be punished for who they are.

These students have endured countless frustrations and setbacks simply to make it through high school, yet they now face the prospect of having the tools they need taken from them.

They need those tools to pass the test that may determine whether they can graduate.

The reason they face this calamity? They happen to have disabilities. And under No Child Left Behind, they are therefore at the mercy of a federal bureaucracy that determines whether they can use the accommodations that need to succeed.

One of the major selling points of NCLB was that it would help disabled students.

By requiring schools to demonstrate progress not only with their entire student bodies, but also among subgroups such as those with disabilities, schools could be made accountable for actually educating these oft-ignored students.

So it was thought. Unfortunately, a few vaguely worded lines in the act played havoc with the status of these students’ accommodations.

Professionals evaluate such students, then draw up a plan tailored to the individual, spelling out precisely what accommodations they are to receive.

Disabled students are legally entitled to such plans under federal law. When it comes to taking standardized tests such as AIMS, however, the federal Department of Education decides on a case-by-case basis which accommodations are allowable for which tests.

If an accommodation is not on the approved list, a student may not use it, even if his federally mandated plan says he is entitled to do so.

If a school allows the student to use the “non-standard” accommodations cited in his plan, the tests he takes will not count. That could contribute to a school failing to made “adequate yearly progress” if a sufficient number of students in that category don’t take the test, as required by the Department of Education.

Yet accommodation plans have been one of the greatest success stories in the history of special education.

Under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and IDEA in 1975, these plans have been instrumental in taking students out of special-ed classes and allowing them to work side by side with their non-disabled peers.

Accommodations – such as extra time on tests, large-print material, read-aloud instructions and dictation – do not give disabled students any unfair advantage; they simply allow students to work on a level playing field with their peers.

I can speak personally to how well these plans work, as I am a disabled student.

My condition, dysgraphia, impairs my fine motor skills and makes it very difficult to write by hand.

In an earlier era, I might have been failed for producing illegible work. But the 504 plan I was given under the Rehabilitation Act lets me take notes and write essays on a laptop.

While I used to spend more time thinking about making my essays readable than on what I was actually saying, I have since been able to focus on the quality of the words on the page instead of how they look.

The 2004 amendments to IDEA speaks of the need to make special education a service provided to students instead of a place they are sent.

Accommodations have been the most useful tool in working toward this goal, giving disabled students a chance to demonstrate the extent of their ability rather than their disability.

Taking them away for such important tests is not only nonsensical, but also cruel, and it violates everything education disability law has tried to do over the past 35 years.

Let’s hope that when No Child Left Behind is amended this year, Congress will fix this glaring problem.

Colin Killick is a senior at Basis Tucson High School. E-mail: yrf9@msn.com

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This archive contains all the stories that appeared on the Tucson Citizen's website from mid-2006 to June 1, 2009.

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For all of the stories that were archived by the Tucson Citizen newspaper's library in a digital archive between 1993 and 2009, go to Morgue Part 2

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