Board reviewing class placement for students

NASHUA – In reviews of the school district’s special-education and English Language Learner programs, state and federal organizations have raised concerns about students being systematically placed in low-level classes.

A report issued by the state Department of Education in February 2007 cited the district for the way it levels students, raising questions surrounding the process and criteria used to determine enrollment within the leveled courses.

The report stated the district lacked data as to why special-education students were predominantly in lower-level classes, the length of time they remain in those levels, and what the entrance and exit criteria for levels are.

“Without data to support such questions, it is difficult to determine whether students with disabilities do in fact have equal educational opportunities or full access to general education curriculum,” the report read.

The report was issued after an onsite review of the district’s special-education program. The report concluded the district’s leveling system didn’t coincide with its overall missions of inclusiveness and equal opportunity for all students.

The school board is in the process of reviewing the district’s middle school leveling policy.

Current policy requires middle schools to group students by ability, a process known as homogeneous grouping. There are three levels of classes: foundation, extension and honors. There is also leveling in the high schools.

It is meant to give students more focused instruction catered to their learning abilities, but some teachers and administrators in the district have advocated for the district to change to heterogeneous grouping in the middle schools.

That would mean students of all abilities in the same classes. Critics of leveling argue it lowers expectations at a young age and results in a form of segregation, with students who are minorities, come from poor households or fall into other subgroups being disproportionately placed in the lowest-level courses.

Proponents of keeping the system in place in the middle schools, many of whom spoke out at a meeting Nov. 17, argue that mixing students together would overburden teachers, requiring them to teach a wider spectrum of abilities in a single classroom.

Eric Schroeder, director of special education, said at the meeting that the issue of special-education students being placed predominantly in low-level classes still needs to be addressed.

“Is there a different way of scheduling students so we can provide the opportunities for special-education students to get into that higher class so they can be more successful and move up?” he asked.

At the time of the review in 2007, Schroeder said state officials in some cases found foundation classes in which eight out of 10 students were special-education students.

Enrollment data provided by the school district show that special-education students are still overwhelmingly placed in foundation-level classes and that few are placed in honors classes.

At Fairgrounds Middle School, nearly 70 percent of special-education students were in foundation-level courses, according to middle school enrollment data from the 2007-08 school year.

At Elm Street Middle School, 65 percent were in foundation courses, and at Pennichuck Middle School, it was roughly 30 percent.

Overall, about 16 percent of students are identified as special education in the school district.

The district’s special-education program requires state approval. However, it isn’t clear what the status of the district’s program approval is. As of Saturday, Schroeder hadn’t returned a phone call to his office.

Similar concerns have been raised by the United States Office of Civil Rights, which has been reviewing the school district’s English Language Learner program (formerly English as a Second Language) since 1998.

The Office of Civil Rights is a sub-agency of the United States Department of Education and is meant to enforce civil rights and ensure students have equal access to education.

In its 2005 report, the civil rights office raised concerns about a disproportionate number of English Language Learner students being placed in the lowest-level courses.

At last week’s meeting, Robert Cioppa, director of the district’s English Language Learner program, said that in many cases, it makes sense for new ELL students who speak limited or no English to be placed in foundation courses.

His concern is whether students who improve their English abilities truly have access to the higher-level courses, or whether they simply languish in the low-level courses.

Cioppa said that while some progress has been made at the high schools, he has concerns about what’s going on at the middle schools, especially if students are prevented from moving up to higher levels.

“These students are not intellectually challenged, they are linguistically challenged,” he said. “So once their language proficiency increases, I’m really not comfortable with kids being trapped.”

At Fairgrounds, 70 percent of ELL students were in foundation courses last year; at Elm Street, it was 50 percent; and at Pennichuck, it was roughly 20 percent.

At the meeting, some administrators said it isn’t as simple as parents requesting a level change for students to move up or down.

In some cases, the way students are scheduled in the middle schools doesn’t allow any flexibility for students to change levels at any given time.

The meeting was the second of what’s expected to be at least three held by the school board’s curriculum committee to focus on leveling.

The debate over whether students should be separated into different classrooms based on their perceived abilities has been one of the most contentious in education for decades.

School board member Robert Hallowell, chairman of the committee, said he didn’t expect the next meeting on leveling to be held until January at the earliest.