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Implemented carefully, changed law to help disabled

It may affect only around 4,000 children directly, but changes in high school diploma requirements for that population could impact accountability measures for many of Louisiana secondary schools as well as statewide graduation metrics.

HB 1015 by state Rep. John Schroder allows for greater flexibility in use of standardized exams in determining proficiency for graduation from high school for students with major/multiple intellectual disabilities. The state is plagued with one of the lowest graduation rates among students with disabilities, and relaxing the use of standardized exams as a sole measure of proficiency, replaced by other kinds of assessments, may better measure the actual abilities of these students. For those who have such a disability, if qualification for a regular diploma cannot be managed, the student can be awarded a certificate of achievement.

According to the bill, if a student assessed with such a disability fares poorly in multiple assessments, the Individualized Education Plan team for the student may recommend using alternative assessments and may choose them from a list to be developed recommended by the Department of Education. Students will continue to take the standardized tests, but they will count only towards the accountability measures for schools, although graduation scoring based on successful completion of IEP requirements not including the exams also will be used in those measures.

The bill as originally written caused a dramatic split within the disability advocacy community. Some individuals and organizations, including some with national prominence, objected to the initial language which said one test failure automatically triggered the process, claiming that this lacked the expectation of rigor that would cheapen the diploma. Others said similar approaches are used in other states.

In the end, supporting and opposing advocates with Schroder hashed out with the mediation of Senate Education Committee chairman Conrad Appel a compromise except on the issue of whether the assessments ought to be suggested by DOE, which opponents to the original version and DOE thought wisest. In the end, the committee went along with that idea, even as original bill supporters thought this constrained IEP teams too much, even though their use of listed assessments would be voluntary.

The worrisome aspect for the original opponents, who seemed largely placated, was that this changed the nature of graduation requirements from two kinds of diplomas (the other kind, career-based, is hardly awarded due to present lack of student demand) potentially to thousands of different sets of requirements. They rightly felt concern that IEP teams lacked capacity to derive a graduation plan that included adequate rigor and expertise, including whether they could judge adequately whether an IEP should include an alternative pathway to graduation, which could discourage integration into the larger student population. As such, in the rule-making process allied to this change in law DOE should pay close attention to the role of the IEP team and make an effort to enable capacity-building for them.

The original supporters weren’t completely satisfied in that part of the accountability scoring still incorporates the test results from students with intellectual disabilities, even as the alternative graduation plans should boost schools’ graduation rates. Their argument ever since much stricter accountability measures for schools came about has been that this created a disincentive for schools to enroll students with these disabilities, where in this decision charter schools can have some leeway and even to some small degree traditional schools as well. This threatens segregation of these students from the general population potentially without justification and might steer them to academically less capable environments. But retaining at least some accountability mechanism provides schools incentive to maximize their efforts to give these students the best education possible under the circumstances.

In the end, as long as DOE strives to equip better IEP teams in dealing with this important decision, the bill in its present form does a serviceable job in coming up with an assessment process that more validly measures actual achievement that determines whether to issue a high school diploma to students with more severe intellectual disabilities while maintaining the integrity of the award and providing proper incentives for schools to deliver sufficient educational quality concerning that award. Thus, HB 1015 deserves becoming law.

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