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Rating schools by special ed performance hurts all

Campus West School is a kindergarten through eighth-grade Buffalo public school that has had a long and proud tradition in its association with Buffalo State College. The staff is highly trained, motivated and constantly involved in professional development.

Our school is a site for training student teachers, with many professionals using our school for educational research. Our scores for eighth-grade general education students on the 2006 English language arts, math, social studies and science exams are the second- or third-highest in the district for nonselective schools. The scores surpass some suburban schools.

Campus West, however, has been listed as a "school in need of improvement" for a number of years by the State Education Department, as was reported in The Buffalo News on Jan. 11. How could this happen?

Campus West has, throughout its existence, been a wonderful learning center for special education students. At this time, about 40 percent of our student body is special-needs students. One part of the No Child Left Behind Act requires special education students to meet the same benchmarks as their counterparts in general education.

A little-known aspect of this policy is that a school can be judged deficient solely on the basis of the Education Department's judgment that special education students are not successful on state assessments. This indeed is the mechanism by which Campus West was designated as needing improvement. The policy of judging an entire school program by measuring special education student achievement on standardized testing precipitates much more negative fallout than the simple label implies. First and foremost, parents and community and media people are not able to see real successes in the school program.

For example, the percentage of Campus West general education students who passed the eighth-grade English language arts test has increased 20 percent in the last two years. The eighth-grade general education students of Campus West are almost 25 percent above the city average on all state tests.

It also undermines the professionalism of special education teachers who traditionally have judged the success of special education students based on their individual learning plans.

Lastly, and the reason for this explanatory piece, the policy of judging a school by the success of its special education students on standardized tests affects student responses to their educational program. One bright student, perhaps reflecting her parent's comments, was recently overheard: "Campus West is a 'bad' school because we have 'dumb' kids taking these [standardized] tests."

Much more could be said, but to me, this statement reflects the darkest underbelly of the unwarranted use of standardized testing and provides its own commentary.

Robert Tyrrell is a science teacher at Campus West School in Buffalo.

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