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Parents Worry Special Ed Students Aren't Ready for Upcoming Test

Feb. 18, 2008 — With the Virgin Islands Territorial Assessment of Learning (VITAL) test coming up in March, local educators are trying to make sure enough kids show up to take the exam, but parents are concerned that special education students aren't prepared enough to pass it.
According to federal No Child Left Behind mandates, each school has to have 95 percent participation on test-taking days. Last year, the number of schools meeting adequate yearly progress (AYP) standards dropped due to low participation and attendance levels throughout the year, according to Education Commissioner LaVerne Terry.
About 50 parents, school administrators, students and government representatives came out Wednesday night to hear Terry speak on St. Thomas in the last of three public forums held throughout the territory. Looking over the past school year's results, Terry said Education officials have noticed that certain categories of students — such as special education and English language learners — skip out during the testing weeks.
"That's why we're reaching out to the schools, the communities and to the parents," Terry said. "We should be pushing all students to reach as far and high as they can reach."
Education has recently implemented software that would help school administrators track students' attendance, and target the kids that have missed multiple days of school.
But the nationwide shortage of special education teachers has already affected the Virgin Islands, forcing the need for a co-education model that would partner special education teachers with regular teachers within the school system, Terry said. If a special education teacher does not show up, the other teacher would take his or her place, she explained.
There have been instances, however, where special education teachers have not shown up for months during the school year, leaving students in the classroom with just a paraprofessional — if no one is there, the students simply watch a video, one parent said. Without constant instruction throughout the year, there's no way the students would be prepared to take the VITAL, she added.
"It's unfortunate that we're just finding out about this now," Terry said. "Nobody thinks that student should be watching videos all day long — that's abnormal. When something like this happens, you need to call the superintendent's office immediately — we will investigate it."
The students will still be expected to take the test this year, but Education is working on how it assesses students with "severe" cognitive disabilities, added Deputy Education Commissioner Lauren Larsen. For that to happen, however, the department does have to collect necessary data — much of which comes after students take the VITAL — but a new assessment model should be rolled out during the upcoming school year, he added.
When asked what happens to schools that consistently fail to meet AYP standards, Larsen reminded parents of the territory's unique education structure. On the mainland, schools that don't make AYP for two consecutive years would be targeted for improvement. Another option would be to fire the teachers, which could not work in the Virgin Islands, he said.
"But we are not to that point where we can begin to issue sanctions or implement any other negative actions on the schools right now," Larsen explained.
A plan must first be submitted to the U.S. Department of Education to address the issue, he added.
Meanwhile, there are various intervention programs being implemented throughout the schools, along with after-school initiatives that target students in small groups, Terry said. Getting more parents into classrooms and partnering with outside universities to help high school students earn college credit are also initiatives being looked at by the department in an effort to combat the teacher shortage, she said.
"Most of the ninth graders we see coming in are performing well below proficiency level," explained Barbara Callwood, who outlined a few of the intervention programs being used at Charlotte Amalie High School. While the program has been expanded to include most of the ninth graders, the school does have problems fitting all the necessary labs into the current block schedule, she added.
Parents and administrators have to sit down and figure out what programs are right for each school, Terry added. In the meantime, more data on local middle schools has to be collected, she said.
"We struggle with our middle schools," Terry said. "We have to figure out how to capture those students we are just getting out of elementary, whose skills aren't as strong. Our middle schools can be presented as an at risk populations — we're going to be bringing our middle school principals together, figure out what's wrong and look at strategies to implement in the fall of next year."
VITAL testing begins March 16 and runs until March 20.

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