Thursday, September 10, 2009

Too Many Special Ed Students in Albany? Sure Looks That Way

Last Sunday, an article in the Albany Times Union discussed the differences in the percentage of students in special education in charter schools versus the Albany School District. Charter schools, it noted, have about 5 percent of students with disabilities while the district had 21 percent.

Yesterday, The Chalkboard documented that this disparity doesn't change the fact that charters in Albany still outperform the district on state test scores, even when you remove test scores of special ed students from the district's data.

Charter school opponents--which consist mostly of teacher unions and school district officials--view the special education issue as the best argument (or excuse) they have to attack charter schools and discredit their impressive academic performance. As we've shown in the case of Albany, this line of attack doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

To explain the disparity in the percentages of special education students, the Times Union story included perspective from Tom Carroll, the chairman of the Brighter Choice Foundation, that supports all but one of Albany's charter schools. Carroll stated that charter schools are not quick to label students and that districts like Albany over-subscribe students for special education services.

This claim has backing from the state Education Department, which documented repeatedly that minority students, of which Albany has a high percentage, are "disproportionately placed in special education" across the state. This practice can certainly provide some explanation as to why 21 percent of Albany's students in district schools are classified this way.

Special Education Middle School Spike
Another explanation for Albany's high percentage of special education students compared to charter schools is that the district does a perpetually poor job of educating and disciplining students, resulting in low test scores for many students who subsequently get designated as having a disability. For example, slightly more than half of the Albany district's 1,900 special education students are classified either as having "emotional disturbance" or "learning disability." In both categories, the number of students labeled such increases sharply in middle school, reaching their peak numbers in 10th grade.

This begs the question: are these students all of sudden, by middle school, "emotionally disturbed" or "learning disabled?" Or, is this a convenient excuse to cover for inadequate elementary school preparation for more challenging middle and upper grades?

This data should prompt the examination of the Albany district's special education classification practices. Scores on state tests drop dramatically between 3rd and 8th grade; a common statewide trend, but to an alarmingly degree in Albany. At the same time, the special ed numbers show that for many of these students, the answer appears to be that they must be learning disabled by middle school, which went previously undetected. For example, students labeled as learning disabled doubles from 25 district wide in 4th grade to 50 in 5th grade; by 9th grade, the figure doubles again, to 102 students.

For other students, improper behavior leading to poor academic performance prompts for many a designation of emotional disturbance -- again, not recognized for most of them in lower grades. For example, Albany had 16 and 17 students classified this way in 3rd and 4th grades, respectively; by 9th and 10th grades, these figures increase to 39 and 49, respectively -- a jump of two and one-half times.

Blame-the-Student Classification Strategy
This disturbing spike of special education students in middle and high school grades should be examined. Are this many students really special education, or just inadequately taught and disciplined? The evidence sadly suggests the latter problem.

Rather than point fingers at charter schools for supposedly having too few students in special education, the Albany School District needs to get beyond what looks to be a blame-the-student approach and rethink its penchant for having such a high percentage of students labeled as special education.

Peter Murphy
for The Chalkboard

Disclaimer: The Chalkboard is hosted by the New York Charter Schools Association (NYCSA) as a place where members, public education advocates and others can view and respond to informed commentary on timely public education and charter school issues. The views expressed here are not necessarily the official views of the NYCSA, its board, or of any of its individual charter school members. Anyone who claims otherwise is violating the spirit and purpose of this blog. To comment on anything you read here, or to offer tips, advice, comments, or complaints. please contact TheChalkboard.