By Melissa B. Taboada | AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Thursday, July 21, 2011
For the third consecutive year, the Austin school district as a whole will miss federal academic targets established by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, district officials told the American-Statesman.
The prediction is based on preliminary data from the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills that show unsatisfactory improvement by special education students on math and reading exams.
The official federal school accountability ratings will be announced in August.
District officials said they couldn't say with certainty how many of the 118 schools to be rated this year also failed to make "Adequate Yearly Progress" because the state has not yet released that data. Of 115 Austin schools evaluated last year, six failed to meet the federal standards.
The federal requirements are different from those under the state's accountability system and are based on TAKS participation and passing rates, as well as graduation and attendance rates. Austin missed targets because the district allowed too many special education students to take a modified or alternative version of the reading and math tests, based on federal standards.
Of the district's 85,697 students, 9.7 percent, were served by special education in 2010-11, including those with physical and learning disabilities, as well as emotional and behavioral disorders. Officials said of the 4,327 special education students who took the TAKS — 11.8 percent of test takers — 3,948 took a modified or alternative version of the reading and math tests. The other 379 special education students took the standard TAKS.
Though 83 percent of special education students passed the reading exams and 81 percent passed the math exams, which meets passing standards , the federal system counted about 1,000 of those students as failed. The federal system has a 3 percent cap on how many students can take a modified or alternative exam even if students qualify to take it. Modified tests include those in larger fonts or that offer fewer multiple choice options.
District officials said despite being over the limit, they are giving special education students tests consistent with their individual education plans and their disabilities.
"The bottom line is: You have to do what's right for the kids," said Bill Caritj , the district's chief performance officer. "You can't just give kids the regular TAKS test because it's convenient for you when it's not what's best for them.
"We're doing what's appropriate. We're giving them the correct instruction. We are giving them the correct tests, but we can't count them (as) successful because of the federal rule."
Despite missing the targets, district officials said they are pleased with the progress that special education students have made. Those students made gains in all areas that exceeded gains of students overall.
Graduation rates for special education students have increased for the second consecutive year, from 56.5 percent for the class of 2008 to 61.3 percent for the class of 2010. By comparison, overall graduation rates were 74.3 percent in 2008 and 78.6 percent for 2010.
Austin isn't alone in exceeding the federal special education cap. Houston data show that of 118,478 students tested this year in reading, 6 percent took a modified or alternative version of the test; of 118,610 students tested in math, 5.7 percent took a modified or alternative version .
Federal officials recognize problems with the system.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in June that if there are not changes to standards created by the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, 83 percent of all schools could be classified as failing next year because of tougher passing standards or other reasons. Still, it's unclear whether Congress will make any changes to the law.
Each time the Austin district missed the mark, students made the required progress, but the district exceeded the special education cap.
"We want to meet the needs of all kids, and a message of missing AYP gives the perception that we're not," school board President Mark Williams said. "We can't change the accountability rating for (2011), but we can say how we are going to change it to make it better going forward."
Austin serves a large number of special education students in part because the district has a reputation for having strong programs for those students, officials said.
"Our team does a really nice job. And in some ways, it attracts some people to the district to get those services," Williams said. "When that happens, you get a number higher than what the feds allow us to consider."
The goal is to prepare more of
those students to take the standard achievement exams.
The stakes are high. Districts that receive federal Title I funds and continually fail to miss the federal targets stand to come under stringent sanctions at failing schools , including firing teachers or having the Texas Education Agency or a charter operator take over the school.
Austin school district special education
2010-11 enrollment 85,697
Special education enrollment 8,349
Orthopedically impaired 117
Other health impaired 1,045
Auditory impaired 71
Visually impaired 71
Mentally disabled 604
Emotionally disturbed 464
Learning disabled 3,582
Speech impaired 1,620
Traumatic brain injury 28
Noncategorical early childhood 26
Note:Students may have more than one diagnosis.
Source: Austin school district