New York City says testing waiver sought by state could lower standards for students with disabilities

New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña and State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia at Thomas A. Edison Career and Technical Education High School. PHOTO: Monica Disare

New York State wants to allow some students with disabilities to take below-grade-level exams — a plan that special-education advocates opposed and New York City officials questioned, arguing that would lower the standards for those students.

The state asked the federal education department in September for permission to give students with significant cognitive disabilities tests matched to their instructional level, rather than their age. State education department officials say this will provide schools with more useful information about what students have actually learned, while other supporters say it will spare those students from taking tests they have no chance of passing.

But New York City’s education department — which oversees half the state’s students — has raised concerns about the state’s request, while a coalition of 15 national special-education advocacy groups has urged U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to deny it. They argue that testing students below grade level would violate federal law, while city officials say that doing so would lower expectations of students with serious disabilities.

Maggie Moroff, a special-education policy expert at Advocates for Children, a New York City-based group that opposes the waiver, said she recognizes how frustrating it can be for students with disabilities to sit for exams they find extremely difficult and are unlikely to pass.

Nonetheless, “the waiver would give schools the opportunity to lower standards for students with disabilities,” she said, “instead of rising to the occasion.”

New York state submitted its testing waiver as part of a plan required under the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act. The request said that students may only be given a test written for younger students if they scored at the lowest level on the state exam or took an alternative test for students with severe disabilities in a previous year, are not qualified to take that alternative test in the current year, and have significant cognitive disabilities that affect their memory, language comprehension, or problem solving.

State officials said they expect only a small number of students would meet those criteria. Students would not be permitted to test more than two grade levels below their age, and students in grades 6-8 would have to take a test each year that is one grade above the one they took the previous year.

In their letter to DeVos, which was first reported by Education Week, the national Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities laid out several objections to New York’s waiver request. In addition to saying it violated the legal requirement that most students be tested at grade level, they said it would discriminate against students with disabilities and hide the achievement level of those students.

Meanwhile, the New York City education department also penned a letter to the state citing concerns about the proposal.

On a practical level, they said the student eligibility requirements were to left “many questions that need to be answered.” Disability advocates share this concern, saying that vague rules could allow districts to give below-grade-level tests to many students who don’t require them — reversing a yearslong effort by advocates to have students with disabilities take the same tests as their general-education peers.

The city also argued that the waiver risked lowering expectations of students with disabilities.

“It has been our experience that once we make a decision that a student is not able to take grade-level assessments, the likelihood of them being able to meet standards over time is significantly decreased,” said the city letter, which was signed by Sharon Rencher, senior advisor to the schools chancellor.

The state’s proposal has garnered some support, including from statewide associations of local school boards and superintendents. In all, 14 of 20 public comments submitted to the state were in “general support” of the waiver, according to the state education department.

Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, said he understands the importance of holding students with disabilities to high standards, but ultimately felt that forcing some students to take grade-level tests can do more harm than good.

“We just felt it was unfair to many of the kids,” he said. “They don’t have a realistic prospect of success and it’s just frustrating or discouraging for them.”

There is no guarantee that the federal education department will grant the waiver. The department rejected a similar request by New York in 2015. However, some observers think the state may stand a better chance under DeVos, who has emphasized the importance of letting states and districts make their own policy decisions.

A New York education department spokeswoman said districts would not be able to use the waiver to boost their accountability ratings because any student who takes a test below their grade level would automatically fall into the lowest score category.

“This waiver is simply designed to give a small group of students an assessment on which they may be able to demonstrate that which they do know,” said the spokeswoman, Emily DeSantis, “instead of giving them an assessment on which their result is likely to depend entirely on how well they guessed on the multiple choice questions.”

A spokeswoman for the city education department said it does not oppose the waiver request, but believes it presents challenges and questions that the city raised in a letter to the state.

“We remain committed to ensuring that all students are given every opportunity to access grade-level curriculum and assessments in order to ultimately earn their high school diploma and access all of the post-secondary options that this affords,” said the spokeswoman, Toya Holness.

By Monica Disare