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Every year in Texas, more than 440,000 children with special needs and learning disabilities ranging

from moderate to severe are required to take the STAAR Test. The Texas Education Agency says, “There are no exemptions to these requirements regardless of the severity of the student’s disability.” The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 implemented accountability measures for schools and teachers by increasing the amount of state standardized testing. Even though Texas received a conditional waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act in September, mandated state testing will still remain in place. According to the U.S. Department of Education, all but five states have either received a waiver, or are in the process of applying for a waiver, of the No Child Left Behind Act. Deena Raynor, the special education department chair at Hutto High School, says that her students have to do their best with the options they have. “Whether they’re in a feeding tube, in a diaper, can’t go to the bathroom, can’t change themselves, can’t move, they have to take a STAAR Test. I don’t think people realize how crazy that is.” As of the 2013-2014 school year, the TEA offered three types of STAAR tests: the regular test with accommodations, the modified test, and an alternative test. The Modified STAAR is similar in difficulty to the regular STAAR, but with certain modifications such as fewer answer choices. The alternative is more of an

“assessment test” and is reserved for students with more severe cognitive disabilities, says DeEtta Culbertson, a spokesperson for the TEA. Beginning in the 2014-2015 school year, the modified test will no longer be offered, and the state has not announced replaced plans. In a statement, the TEA said that the U.S. Department of Education has said that modified standards “cannot be used for accountability purposes.” This uncertainty is leaving special education teachers wondering how they will adequately plan for their students, Raynor says. A portion of special needs children have to take the regular STAAR Test, but with certain accommodations, such as taking the test in a smaller group of students, having the test read to them, or getting extended amounts of time. For example, the TEA reports that in June 2013 about 3,700 special needs students in grade five took the regular STAAR reading test. Of those, more than 3,200, or 85 percent, did not pass. These numbers are common across the board regardless of grade or subject, according to TEA reports for the 2012-2013 school year. On the same test, out of about 35,000 general education students, 76 percent did not pass. According to the TEA, in the 2010-2011 school year, there were more than 4.9 million students enrolled in Texas public schools. More than 440,000, or 9 percent, were special education students.

The scores of special needs students are kept separate from general education students on the Adequate Yearly Progress, Culbertson says. Adequate Yearly Progress, which was created by the No Child Left Behind Act, is a tool that is used to measure the results of standardized testing. Its purpose is to show how a school is performing on state tests, according to the Department of Education. Part of the conditional waiver Texas received from the act says that only the bottom 15 percent of schools in Texas will have to report an Adequate Yearly Progress, Culbertson says. Raynor, who has been teaching for 11 years, says her special needs students often experience high levels of anxiety and frustration with tests. She says this is because so many of them want to do well, but struggle since they are being held to the same standards as general education students. “They work so hard and they don’t experience success on tests. They know that they don’t get things like everybody else does and then you add those pressures to them.” Susan Hendrickson, whose 15-year-old son Ethan is a special needs student, says they try not to make a big deal about testing. In second grade, Ethan, who is a sophomore at Cedar Ridge High School, was diagnosed with learning disabilities in reading, writing, and math. He now takes the test with several accommodations. Ethan is allowed a dictionary and a calculator, and he can have it read to him. He also takes it one-on-one with a test proctor.

Hendrickson says she is concerned that the modified test will no longer be an option because it is unknown whether special education students will be forced to take the regular test. “Push them all into regular and see how many don’t pass. It would be iffy if he passed,” Hendrickson says. All Texas public school children with special needs have their own committee known as the Admission, Review, and Dismissal Committee, comprised of an administrator, a licensed specialist in school psychology, a special education teacher, a general education teacher, the parent, and the student. The committee meets yearly to determine which test best meets their needs, among other things like what classes they will take and educational goals. The decision is then submitted to the TEA. The committee not only considers the student’s disability when looking at which test is appropriate, but they look at which kinds of classes the student is taking, Raynor says. In certain cases, special education teachers not only have to worry about meeting state standards, they have worry about teaching daily life skills in order to prepare these kids for the real world. Raynor says that the STAAR Test is more rigorous than the previous assessments, which adds more pressure to the teacher in a world where teaching survival is the priority.

She questions why these tests are necessary for children with severe disabilities, when realistically speaking, their biggest concern is living a normal life, not postsecondary education. “I think that the impact on the kids at all levels is not considered. I don’t know what world the people that think everybody is going to college live in,” says Raynor. “And I have high expectations for my kids, but they have to be high and realistic.”