State settles special-ed exam lawsuit

Students can now take graduating examination with more accommodations

Posted: Tuesday, August 03, 2004

The state and disability advocates have settled a federal lawsuit that alleged the high school exit exam discriminated against special-education students.

The parties announced the settlement Monday at a videoconferenced news conference in Anchorage.

Under the agreement, the state Department of Education will allow students with individualized education programs to take the Alaska High School Graduation Qualifying Examination with a wider range of accommodations and modifications than before.

Also, a new test, somewhat like a portfolio of school work, will be developed for students with very severe disabilities.

"Not everybody likes every part of the settlement," said state Education Commissioner Roger Sampson. "But I think they clearly understand the benefit of the big picture."

The state Board of Education is scheduled to take public comment and vote Aug. 16 on proposed rules that would meet the settlement's terms. A federal judge also must approve the agreement.

It was a difficult challenge to meet the students' needs while enforcing accountability to academic standards, said state Attorney General Gregg Renkes.

The exit exam tests reading, writing and math. Roughly 500 to 800 high school seniors in Alaska have disabilities, the state estimates.

Starting with the Class of 2004, which just graduated, students must pass the exam to receive a diploma.

The allowable accommodations and modifications provided for in the settlement are the most comprehensive among states that give an exit exam, said Sid Wolinsky, director of litigation for Disability Rights Advocates. The national nonprofit law center based in Oakland, Calif., was a co-counsel to the class-action lawsuit filed March 16 in U.S. District Court in Anchorage.

"This is an extraordinary settlement. It is a very comprehensive settlement," Wolinsky said. "This is the most constructive resolution that has ever been reached in lawsuits of this nature."

Accommodations are changes in the testing situation so that the test measures the student's ability, not the disability. Examples are allowing frequent breaks during the test, administering the test in a separate location, and allowing students to ask for clarifications of the test directions.

Modifications change the setting, timing, presentation or response format of the tests. They don't change the questions, or the number of the questions, or the score needed to pass.

Special-education students can take a modified test only after they have failed the test without modifications. The Department of Education must approve modifications on a case-by-case basis.

The modification that has caused the most concern is allowing some students to have test questions read aloud to them, Commissioner Sampson said. But he said the state didn't want to exclude read-aloud exams as an option.

Wolinsky said it was the sort of accommodation that students would receive in college.

The settlement puts the state on a tight, but achievable, timeline to instruct school districts in how to determine what accommodations and modifications can be used in the exit exam, Sampson said.

The settlement, and the proposed rules, also require school districts to tell parents of freshmen with disabilities about the process. Parents and districts can appeal decisions on allowable accommodations and modifications.

The settlement allows students in the Class of 2005 to be exempt from the exam if school officials can't come up with a testing plan for them in time.

Wolinsky acknowledged that the settlement did not address one concern of the lawsuit: that special-education students sometimes haven't been taught the material that is on the exit exam. He said the parties agreed to exclude that from the settlement.

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