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Our Kids Deserve Better

EGR Special Education Secret to Minimizing Learning Disabled Kids

 


Quick Summary


Under a new policy established in 2010, the State allows individual school districts to determine their own eligibility criteria for specific learning disabilities (SLDs). EGRPS seized the opportunity, writing a policy that says the only way a child will be eligible for SLD special ed services is if the child scores at or below the 9th percentile nationally on not one but four different assessments.

While East is required to look at a number of factors (e.g., grades, meap tests, progress within the curriculum, teacher reports, etc), under East’s learning disabilities policy, the ONLY way a child may be ELIGIBLE for special ed as having a specific learning disability is to be at or below the 9th PERCENTILE NATIONALLY on FOUR DIFFERENT ASSESSMENTS.

Example: Tommy does well in a number of areas, but by contrast, his reading comprehension scores stand out as really low, and it’s clear he’s struggling in school.  As part of a special ed evaluation, Tommy takes four assessments measuring reading comprehension that place him nationally at the 6th, 8th, 4th and 12th percentiles. At East, Tommy does not qualify as having a specific learning disability, nor will he get special ed services for it.

To date, we have reviewed the SLD policies of more than 300 Michigan public schools districts. We have yet to find a policy more restrictive and exclusionary than East’s. Perhaps that’s why East had the lowest percentage of identified learning disabled kids of any public district in Michigan (see chart above).


Details


Last year, EGRPS had the lowest percentage of identified Learning Disabled kids of any K-12 public school district in the state, 1.37%. That’s 1/4 of the state average of 5.24%! This year EGR’s number is even lower. 1.24%.

It’s not because EGRPS doesn’t have kids with learning disabilities. It’s not because kids who live within the geographical boundaries of district are genetically smarter.

It’s because they don’t meet the rules written by the district.

Here’s the Secret They Don’t Tell You

EGRPS says they follow the law. It’s a talk point they’ve got down pat. “We follow the Law. We follow the law.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this from Special Education staff at East Grand Rapids Public Schools.

But did you know the law says East Grand Rapids Public Schools gets to write its own rules as to who qualifies as learning disabled?

That’s right. The State of Michigan says, “Each school district must determine which process, or combination of processes, it will use to determine SLD eligibility.”

So East Grand Rapids Public Schools writes its own rules. And those rules likely exclude a large amount of kids that would otherwise get help in other districts.

Here’s the Scoop

EGRPS, like many other districts, uses a “Pattern of Strengths and Weaknesses” process of determine whether a child can be identified as having a Specific Learning Disability.

According to the rules EGRPS wrote, to be identified as having a Specific Learning Disability in EGR, a child, for her grade level, has to:

  • On at least four separate assessment measures for a given achievement area, be at or below the 9th percentile nationally, and
  • On at least three separate assessment measures for a different achievement area, be at or above the 25th percentile nationally

That’s it. No other considerations.

  • What if your child is at the 9th percentile on three national tests and at the 11th percentile on the fourth?
  • What about state assessments (e.g., MEAP)
  • What about district-wide assessments?
  • What about how the kid is doing within the school’s curriculum? Common unit assessments?
  • What about consistently falling below aim lines?
  • What about professional teacher judgment?
  • What about classroom observations of the child compared to other students?
  • What about failing or near-failing grades?

Sorry. Nope. Just national assessments. And your kid needs to do really, really badly on at least four of them. Don’t believe it? Then you should read the rules they wrote (located a little further down this post.)

What Does the State Require?

The state requires, “The finding of an academic skill deficit and insufficient progress must not be based on any one measure.” How does EGR get around this? Well, rather than add other types of criteria (e.g., state assessments, grades, teacher judgment, curriculum-based assessments, comparison to the average of other students), they require FOUR separate assessment measures with scores at or below the 9th percentile nationally, essentially standardized assessments with national percentile rankings (national norm-referenced assessments). Four separate ones. The state doesn’t require even one. The district requires four.

Even though the state’s suggested parameters for establishing an academic skill deficit include Curriculum-Based Measurements and Criterion Reference Measures, EGRPS has chosen not to include these. Furthermore, even though the state says, “The decision as to what constitutes an academic skill deficit is a complex decision and will require a degree of professional judgment,” EGRPS ignores that, leaving it solely to the scores on national norm-referenced assessments. There’s no professional judgment to reading a score.

The state does require an observation of the student, but the state doesn’t say the district has to use that observation as one of the potential elements used to identify a student as having a specific learning disability. It can simply be used as a means of interpreting the data or to ensure that appropriate instruction is taking place.

How Does EGR Compare to Other Districts?

In short, exclusionary.

Below is a comparison of EGR’s rules and a few others (but feel free to look at any other district). Just take a few minutes to compare them.

Here are my impressions of them, along with policy language from each district:

Impressions

  • Purposely short
  • Only national assessments with really high hurdles for qualification. Need to be at or below 9th percentile nationally on at least FOUR of them.
  • Not looking for any other criteria to potentially identify struggling students needing help
  • Makes no effort to educate parents
  • Seeks to exclude

Result

  • 1.24% of 2011 total enrollment identified as LD; 37 out of 2,995 kids
  • In 2011, EGRPS had the lowest percentage of identified LD kids of any K-12 public district in Michigan

Current Policy of East Grand Rapids Public Schools

Procedures for Determining a Specific Learning Disability

What are the procedures used by East Grand Rapids Pubic Schools to determine a specific learning disability?

East Grand Rapids Public Schools uses the pattern of strengths and weaknesses model for the determination of a learning disability. A student may be found to demonstrate inadequate achievement in basic reading, reading comprehension, reading fluency, mathematics calculation, mathematics problem solving, oral expression, listening comprehension or written expression, if his/her performance on at least four separate assessment measures, including at least one individually administered achievement measure of the skill area in question, falls at or below the 9th percentile when compared nationally to other students in the same grade. The student must have been provided appropriate instruction in state approved grade level content expectations and the student must display a pattern of weakness in the skill area of concern. Students must also display a pattern of strength in one of the above areas; performance at or above the 25th percentile when compared nationally to other students in the same grade on at least three separate assessment measures.

In making a determination as to whether a student has or continues to have a specific learning disability, East Grand Rapids Public Schools complies with all applicable federal regulations and state rules, including those addressing comprehensive evaluations, determination of the existence of a specific learning disability, observation of academic performance and behavior in the areas of difficulty, specific documentation for SLD, and reevaluation requirements.

Please contact the Special Education Office at 235-3535 for further information.

(This is the complete policy from EGRPS, not an excerpt. This is from the EGRPS website as of April 2012)

View a PDF of EGR’s policy on identifying LD kids.

Impressions

  • Considers lots of potential criteria in determining whether a student may have a qualifying learning disability. Grandville’s has 8 potential criteria for weaknesses. EGR has only one (i.e., national assessments).
  • Seeks to view the child from many different angles when gathering data that may qualify as criteria for a specific learning disability
  • Begins by seeking to educate parents and be fully transparent
  • States that they looked at other districts and consulted other professionals when coming up with it
  • Even educates parents on the various assessments available (This is really great they included these. Download Grandville’s complete Guidelines at the bottom of this post to see these.)

Result

  • 3.64% of 2011 total enrollment identified as LD; 209 out of 5,748 kids

Policy Excerpt

Specific Learning Disability Evaluation Guidelines June 2010

AREA OF WEAKNESS DEFINED:

For initial evaluations, an area of weakness is identified when there are at least four weaknesses identified within one or more of the eight categories of Specific Learning Disability eligibility.

Weaknesses are identified by the following criteria:

  • Progress monitoring falling below aim line for least three consecutive data points
  • Curriculum-based Measures in the ‘at-risk’ range or below the 10th percentile if using local norms
  • Criterion-referenced assessments
    • At least a year below grade level if in gradesK-3
    • At least 1 1⁄2 to 2 years below grade level if in grades 4+
  • Norm-referenced test score at or below the 9th percentile
  • Curriculum assessment scores at or less than 70%
    • If using unit or teacher made tests, an average score of three or more assessments is recommended versus only using the score from the most recent assessment
  • Professional teacher judgment compared to other students in the classroom
  • Classroom observation(s) indicating below grade level performance in comparison to other students in the classroom
  • Grades of D’s or E’s or ‘does not meet’ expectations

Furthermore, regarding initial evaluations:

  • At least two data points must be within the category of academic achievement with respect to grade level and/or with respect to age level expectations, one of which must be from an individually administered academic achievement measure
  • At least one data point must be from classroom performance relative to grade level and/or age level experience
  • A classroom observation is required in all areas identified as a weakness

AREA OF STRENGTH DEFINED:

For initial evaluations, an area of strength is identified when there are at least three strengths identified within one or more of the eight categories of Specific Learning Disability eligibility.

Strengths are identified by the following criteria:

  • Progress monitoring meeting or exceeding an aim line
  • Curriculum-based measures at “benchmark” or above grade level median if using local norms
  • Criterion-referenced assessments at or above grade level
  • Norm-referenced test score at or greater than the 25th percentile
  • Curriculum assessment scores at or greater than 80%.
    • If using unit or teacher made tests, an average score of at least the three most recent assessments is recommended versus only using the one score from the latest assessment
  • Professional teacher judgment compared to other students in the classroom
  • Classroom observations indicating adequate understanding of content in comparison to other students in the classroom
  • Grades of A’s of B’s or ‘meets/exceeds’ expectations

Furthermore:

  • At least one data point identified must be from the category of academic achievement with respect to grade OR age level expectations.
  • At least one data point identified must be from the category of classroom performance relative to grade level and/or age level expectations.

(This is an excerpt of the policy from the Grandville Public Schools website as of April 2012.)

View Grandville’s complete policy on identifying LD kids

Impressions

  • Weakness defined as having ONE assessment score be at the 9th percentile nationally
  • Lots of other factors (5) as criteria in determining whether child has a learning disability
  • Policy is rather short, but explicitly leaves room for holistic evaluation of potential criteria

Result

  • 3.65% of 2011 total enrollment identified as LD; 373 out of 10,219 kids

Policy Excerpt

Forest Hills Public Schools uses the pattern of strengths and weaknesses model for the determination of a learning disability in the following areas:

  • Basic Reading
  • Reading Comprehension
  • Reading Fluency
  • Match Calculation
  • Math Problem Solving
  • Written Expression
  • Listening Comprehension
  • Oral Expression

A student may be found to demonstrate inadequate achievement if his/her performance on an [i.e., one] individually administered achievement measure falls below the 9th percentile (national age based norms). Curriculum assessments, districts assessments, grades, classroom observations and teacher feedback are other pieces of information that will be considered. Additionally, a student must demonstrate a specific pattern of strengths. A strength may be identified in any of the eight areas listed above if he/she scores above the 25th percentile (national age based norms).

(This is an excerpt from the Forest Hills Public Schools website as of April 2012.) View Forest Hills’ complete policy on identifying LD kids

Impressions

  • Lots of factors (6+) as criteria in determining whether child has a learning disability
  • Starts with parent and teacher input

Result

  • 4.68% of 2011 total enrollment identified as LD; 179 out of 3,822 kids

Policy Excerpt

Lowell Area Schools will utilize a pattern of strengths and weaknesses model for the determination of a Specific Learning Disability in the areas of oral expression, listening comprehension, written expression, basic reading skill, reading fluency skills, reading comprehension, mathematics calculation, and mathematics problem solving. The determination of a SLD will be based upon multiple sources of information including:

  • Parent input
  • Classroom teacher input
  • Individually administered tests of academic achievement and intellectual development
  • Classroom observation(s)
  • A review of past educational records
  • Student performance on State-approved grade-level standards, and
  • Other sources of information required by law or deemed pertinent by the evaluation team

(This is an excerpt from the Lowell Public Schools website as of April 2012.) View Lowell’s complete policy on identifying LD kids

Impressions

  • Lots of factors as criteria in determining whether child has a learning disability
  • Specifically says, “The Pattern of Strengths and Weaknesses model will NOT be utilized in grades K-2 in the area of literacy”
  • Complete policy has several tables of information, including 10 potential identification criteria and the potential assessment tools (download complete policy to see this)

Result

  • 2.19% of 2011 total enrollment identified as LD; 177 out of 8,070 kids

Policy Excerpt

Commencing with the 2010/2011 school year, Rockford Public Schools will use a Pattern of Strengths and Weaknesses model to determine whether a student exhibits a SLD in the areas of oral expression, listening comprehension, written expression, basic reading skills, reading fluency skills, reading comprehension, mathematics calculation, and mathematics problem solving in grades K-12. The Pattern of Strengths and Weaknesses model will NOT be utilized in grades K-2 in the area of literacy more specifically; basic reading skills, reading fluency skills, and reading comprehension whereby the district will be utilizing the Response to Intervention (RtI) process to determine the existence of a specific Learning Disability in one or more of these areas outlined.

The determination of a SLD will be based upon multiple sources of information including:

  • parent input;
  • classroom teacher input;
  • individually administered tests of academic achievement and intellectual development;
  • classroom observation;
  • student performance on State-approved grade-level standards;
  • and other sources of information required by law or deemed pertinent by the evaluation team.

(This is an exerpt from the Rockford Public Schools website as of April 2012.) View Rockford’s complete policy on identifying LD kids

What’s the Fix?

The fix is to have EGRPS to write a more appropriate and reasonable policy. That policy should include criteria other than just national norm-referenced assessments, such as those seen in other districts.

But the fix isn’t just adding other criteria. If they simply added other criteria, it wouldn’t change much because EGRPS would still require a kid to be at or below the 9th percentile on FOUR national norm-referenced assessments, in addition to still more criteria.

The right approach is to add other criteria and eliminate the requirement of national norm-referenced assessments as an eligibility requirement. Simply make it one of the potential weaknesses to be considered, like Grandville does. In fact, the State of Michigan says an individually administered norm-referenced assessment must be one of the data points considered among all other factors. However, it does NOT say one such assessment needs to be among the ELIGIBILITY criteria. In others words, you need to do a norm-referenced assessment, but it’s just one of the factors you need to consider when determining whether a student has a specific learning disability. In fact, the State says:

The finding of an academic skill deficit and insufficient progress must not be based on any one measure. No single benchmark or measure is sufficient under Michigan criteria; the student should evidence inadequacy on multiple measures to be determined SLD eligible.

Our Kids Deserve Better

It’s no wonder why EGRPS has a ridiculously low percentage of students identified with specific learning disabilities. The reason is quite simple. The district wrote a policy that severely limits who can even qualify.

It’s not that we don’t have kids with significant learning disabilities. It’s that EGRPS has written its own rules that makes it far less likely the district will be required to identify these kids as special ed, something that would help ensure those kids get appropriate services.

EGR’s sole requirement of four separate national norm-referenced tests sets the bar extraordinarily high and leaves no room for professional judgment or other criteria to potentially evaluate in determining whether a kid has a specific learning disability.

The message seems crystal clear: EGRPS doesn’t want to identify kids as having a specific learning disability. The more kids identified as learning disabled, the more kids they have to help. If EGRPS were really interested in the kids, the district wouldn’t write rules like these.

Discrimination? If so, this wouldn’t be the first time local governmental units placed high hurdles by writing policies to exclude or limit people. Perhaps one of the best known examples of policies designed to exclude was when, for 70 years, southern states employed literacy tests to determine who could register to vote.

The state’s instructions to school districts regarding writing the rules for determining specific learning disabilities states that, “School districts should be thoughtful and intentional when selecting processes and procedures for determining the existence of an SLD.” There’s no question in my mind the district was thoughtful and intentional. I only wish they had been thinking about the kids.

Is this the “tradition of excellence” you want?

As an parent, student, educator, or special ed professional in the area, what are your thoughts? Please leave a comment.

What Can You Do about It?

Use the buttons at the bottom of this post to:

  • Share it on Facebook
  • Share it on Twitter
  • Email it to other EGR parents
  • Email it to Sara Shubel (sshubel@egrps.org) and Brian Ellis (brian@brooktreecapital.com) and let them know your feelings about it
  • Share the graphic on Pinterest
Why should you care about this information? Because it affects you, too. If kids needing special education aren’t identified by the district, the efforts of the general ed teacher become diluted even further, especially as ParaPros and other in-class supports are eliminated. The general ed teacher ends up spending more time with students who should have additional supports. This impacts everyone in the classroom, including the general population and gifted students.
Then you’ll be very interested in this post. Please read it. Thanks for stopping by!

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