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MCAS detour proves tough

Page 2 of 2 -- Evaluating special-education students is a key requirement of the federal No Child Left Behind education law, and special-education researchers point to Massachusetts' system of testing students with intensive disabilities as a national model. In 2001, Massachusetts became the first state to let severely disabled students take an alternate exit exam. Other states now offer alternative exams, but do not accept portfolios, according to the National Center on Educational Outcomes, a University of Minnesota-based group that tracks how states test disabled students.

All students must take the MCAS in some form, and teachers, students, and parents collectively decide whether disabled students submit portfolios or take the standard test. The state leaves it up to schools, but encourages students to take the test when it is feasible.

Advocates say the quality of portfolios has improved because schools are doing a better job teaching severely disabled students reading and math.

''Historically, we've had very low expectations for these students," said Richard Robison, executive director of the Federation for Children with Special Needs. ''That's changed."

Even supporters of the testing concede it's hard to deny diplomas to special-needs students who work hard for modest gains. After a year of preparing portfolios for their own students, about 200 special-education teachers are evaluating the work of other students. Doing so objectively can be a battle between heart and mind.

''It's heart-rending," said John Deyab, who teaches autistic students at Charlestown High School. ''You see a videotape of a kid who's trying his hardest. You're human, and you want to give him the benefit of the doubt. But if the kid isn't getting it, the kid isn't getting it."

One of Deyab's students is Mark Talbot, a junior. He grits his teeth at the mere thought of taking MCAS on paper. His autism causes his mind to overload after a while, he said, and he gets stressed easily. He reads and writes more slowly than most. So working at a more relaxed pace on his portfolio plays to his strengths. Given time to read a book such as ''Of Mice and Men," he can understand it. His portfolio included an essay and responses to questions about the novel.

''I have a hard time starting a story, but once I get rolling, I roll," he said.

Deyab did not submit Talbot's portfolio for graduation consideration this time around, believing the work wasn't ready yet. But he is confident Talbot can learn enough to pass the test with a portfolio.

Liz Abdow, a special-education teacher in Mansfield, submitted a portfolio this year for a 12-year-old boy with cerebral palsy who cannot walk or speak. He had never studied academic subjects, but to develop his portfolio, teachers worked closely with him to see what he could learn. Looking at pictures and communicating with his eyes, he now can differentiate colors, shapes, and words.

''He always had a lot to say, you could see it in his eyes," she said. ''This was a way to prove it to the world."

Special-education teachers say the portfolios have sharpened attention on how severely disabled students are doing in school. As a result, many have made unexpected strides in reading and math.

''Now that we're held accountable, we've gotten them to learn much more than we possibly could have imagined," said Amy Kelley, a special-education teacher at Patrick Gavin Middle School in South Boston.

But many teachers say assembling portfolios, which aim to show how students are meeting the state standards in various subjects, is extremely time-consuming and leaves less time for instruction. Because the odds of a portfolio student earning a diploma are so long, some teachers wonder if all the work is worthwhile.

Ruth Kaplan, a Brookline School Committee member, said that while the theory of judging students by portfolios is sound, the practice is ''an exercise in total futility." Requiring that disabled students reach arbitrary standards creates a two-tiered system that reverses special-education advances, she said.

Mark Talbot's mother, Lisa, sees both sides of the debate. She said she is relieved Mark did not have to take the paper test, but she worries about the long odds of him graduating without it. He'll need a degree to get by in the world, she said, and she won't settle for him receiving a certificate of completion.

''Mark's convinced it's going to happen," she said. ''I'm just hopeful." 

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