Beware Their Cheating Hearts ...

Time was when teachers and school administrators had to concern themselves with the possibility of children cheating on tests. Nowadays, it is the other way around.
Some teachers, parents and even retired administrators have called to say they fear state-wide “systematic cheating” is happening on the SOLs because of a dramatic increase in over-identification and misidentification of some children as “special education.”

Children deemed in need of "special education" are eligible to take less rigorous versions of the Standards of Learning (SOL) tests. Of particular concern is the way children in grades three through eight are being tested feverishly under alternative assessments for children with disabilities, but hardly at all under the high school versions of the programs.

Many of those who called suggested that by ignoring this increase in children being labeled "special education," some upper echelon state education administrators, school superintendents and members of the State Board of Education are not only quietly condoning, but actually encouraging the practice.

Have pressure to satisfy the NCLB mandate of Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) and worries of whether a school and its district will be accredited led administrators to game the system?

Since special education and the rights of children and families with disabilities have long been close to my heart, I decided to find out if what I was hearing could be true. To begin the process of sifting fact from fiction, I asked for information from the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) and Richmond Public Schools (RPS).

I have still not received any response from RPS, other than to say they need more time to provide the requested information. I have asked for a meeting with Supt. Yvonne W. Brandon to discuss why Richmond is still a third higher in learning disabilities, double the state average in emotional disturbance and triple the state average in mental retardation. When that meeting happens, I will gladly report on it.

Once the data started flowing in from VDOE, I was so stunned I had to ask my friend John Butcher, a semi-retired attorney and a former chemistry professor at Hampden-Sydney College, to help analyze and investigate. We spent the last month-plus crunching numbers and asking questions. To see his detailed charts and analysis of what we have found so far, click here.

The many who expressed their concerns are not without justification.

To be sure, the sheer volume of tests administered to children labeled “special education” was significant enough to warrant official questions from the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) in 2006-2007 concerning possible “disproportionate” identification of students with disabilities in 101 of 132 Virginia school districts.

The VDOE’s official response to USDOE was to say they “investigated” by asking each of the 101 districts to review their own data, and that each of the districts in question reported back that there was, in fact, not even one instance of disproportionate identification. Not one.

To say that this response strains one’s credulity, is an understatement.

It could be that educators across the Commonwealth and at VDOE have found a miracle cure for profound cognitive and physical disabilities or, perhaps, Virginia is concurrently experiencing an epidemic of afflictions that make it impossible for a child to take a multiple choice test, afflictions that mysteriously disappear when a child enters high school. But, I doubt it.

However, consider the following facts and decide for yourself.

Since 2004-2005 when Virginia began allowing school districts to administer the Virginia Grade Level Alternative Assessment (VGLA) -- a test designed for children who have a disability that prevents them from taking the multiple choice Standard of Learning (SOL) test – the number of VGLA tests administered to children in grades three to eight sky-rocketed, from a mere 2,031 to 35,962.

Richmond provided much of the fuel for that rocket.

During this same time, the number of tests administered to children taking the Virginia Alternate Assessment Program (VAAP) -- a test similarly designed for children in grades three through eight and 11, but for those who have cognitive disabilities that prevent them from taking the SOLs -- has more than doubled, from 11,152 to 23,747.

Simply adding the number of VAAP and VGLA tests administered to children shows that administrators claimed nearly 60,000 "alternative assessments" were necessary for children they said had disabilities significant enough to be excused from taking the regular SOLs.

Now here's where the miracle cure comes in: the number of children state-wide who took the VSEP, the high school equivalent of the VGLA was 253. No typo there, folks, two-hundred-fifty-three (253). True, there is an incredibly low 44 percent graduation rate state-wide for children with disabilities and only 32 percent in Richmond. Obviously, too many of the kids are dropping out and many (if not most) are being given inferior diplomas or "certificates of completion." As well, the VSEP is a high-labor effort requiring additional documentation and advance planning. Even so, something is seriously wrong with this picture.

On the state level, it is clear that the experts at VDOE and the State Board of Education know that certain school districts are abusing testing exemptions which allow children with disabilities to take alternative assessments to the Standards of Learning, but precious little is being done to correct the situation.

Not only are the data a damning demonstration of the power of an unfunded mandate with high demands and draconian consequences to corrupt good people, but more's the pity what data reveal happening in Virginia's urban centers, Richmond most especially. In 2007-08, Richmond administered over almost 3,500 tests under the VGLA, but not a single test under the VSEP.

We know there is no miracle happening for RPS 8th-graders, but there is no logical explanation for this utter lack of VSEP assessments for our high school children with disabilities.The very large number of disabilities reported among Richmond's schoolchildren and the very large number of alternative tests demand an explanation.

Suspicion grows when we notice that RPS -- AND every other district -- gets to grade the VGLA and VAAP tests, but the State grades the VSEP. Thus, VGLA/VAAP assessments provide a handy mechanism to evade the rigors of the SOL testing, but VSEP does not.

And Richmond appears to be using that mechanism with a vengeance: Although the division SOL score is far below average, Richmond's students with disabilities are performing well above the statewide average for students with disabilities.

Also in Richmond, it is indeed cold comfort to see that the allegations and rumors that have roiled around for years that African-American children, especially males, have been grossly over-identified as being mentally retarded or emotionally disturbed, appear to be true.

NCLB and Virginia's SOLs aren't simply about measuring how well our children, including those in special education, do in public school. The NCLB mandate (unfunded or not) and the SOLs are also supposed to measure how well the teacher, school, school district and state perform their jobs. The task becomes exponentially more complicated when attempting to determine how the children in special education are faring.

Unfortunately, any parent, taxpayer or hard-working teacher who has seriously attempted to hold the special education establishment, VDOE or the State Board of Education accountable knows full well how Hercules felt when he battled the Hydra.

Just ask a mother who is upset that her child has been declared mentally retarded, labeled as emotionally disturbed or branded learning disabled, when she knows the problem is not her child, but the teacher or the principal. Or ask a parent who wants and needs services for their child, but somehow can't make the system deliver on what has been promised.

Parents, teachers and even retired administrators have long complained about the subjectivity of the referral process in Richmond which unfairly labels way too many children "disabled." Virginia is not alone in attempting to game the system by reshaping the testing pool or by creating ways to exclude a child's scores from a district's or the state's AYP calculation.

But, the dramatic jump in the number of VGLA and VAAP tests will no doubt reap long-term negative results. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to see that being labeled as disabled profoundly affects a child's sense of self or that being misidentified as a child with a disability can create lifelong distrust and anger. Add to this, the humiliation and frustration that parents endure when they can't get the needed services for their children because administrators are too busy playing AYP games.

In the short-run, such over-identification and misidentification clearly reduces the accuracy that is supposed to derive from the SOL tests and NCLB accountability measures. Reducing that accuracy, reduces the possibility that policy makers can reach informed and wise decisions that will help improve public education. If the data are faulty, how can the conclusion be accurate? And, if the schools' problems are intentionally disguised and distorted, how can we expect to fix them?

Add to this distortion, the not insignificant problem that special education costs on average 1.6 times as much per student as regular education. That means the dramatic, and questionable, increase of children labeled with disabilities, ostensibly for the purpose of making AYP, reduces the amount of money available for the children with bonafide disabilities and for other non-disabled children.

The over-identification of minorities for special education is a national problem. It is the shame of our city, our Commonwealth and our nation.

We know that NCLB created high hurdles, imposed draconian consequences for not clearing them and then offered no tools to school systems to succeed. It is, however, not acceptable that the response has been to make liars of schools administrators at all levels, to brand children with disabilities to improve a school system's pass rate, to deprive school systems of the usefulness of true measures of performance and to skew the use of resources in public schools.

In a later entry, I will discuss what needs to happen in the long run to correct this problem. For right now, suffice to say, USDOE, VDOE, the State Board of Education and individual school districts need to stop cheating and to stop allowing cheating.