State to monitor special education

NASHUA – The school district’s special education program will be under increased scrutiny from state education officials next year, the result of low test scores among its students.

Nashua is one of six school districts in the state that will undergo what the state Department of Education calls “focused monitoring,” said Santina Thibedeau, administrator of the New Hampshire Bureau of Special Education.

Nashua was one of the districts selected because of the achievement gap between special education students and their peers on standardized tests, specifically the New England Common Assessment Program, she said.

The NECAP is given to students in grades three through eight as well as high school sophomores to determine whether students are performing at grade level in reading and math.

The results of the test are used to determine whether schools are making Adequate Yearly Progress, a requirement of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Focused monitoring was piloted in three school districts two years ago, Thibedeau said.

There are seven school districts now going through focused monitoring: Berlin, Dover, Laconia, Littleton, Manchester, Northumberland and Wakefield, Thibedeau said.

“This has been very well received by school districts,” she said. “There is a technical assistance team working right within their school districts, as opposed to if they were going to a workshop off-site for one day.”

Thibedeau said Nashua would be assigned two on-site facilitators, who will work with district staff to analyze the testing data.

Based on those findings, a plan will be put together on how to decrease that gap, she said. Thibedeau said focused monitoring is a two-year process; the first year is coming up with a plan and the second year is implementing it.

The district would receive $10,000 from the state to help with implementing the plan, she said.

Roughly 15 percent of students in the city are categorized as special education. All special education students have an Individualized Education Plan, referred to as an IEP.

Federal mandates require that special education students take the same test as regular education students. Only a small amount – 1 percent – of the most severely disabled students are allowed to take an alternative assessment.

Thibedeau said it’s critical for school districts to hold all students, including special education students, to the same standard. Any expectation that special education students will do poorly on tests isn’t acceptable, she said.

The state does not have districtwide test scores broken down by special education and non-special education students, but individual grade results are.

Based on results from third-grade students in Nashua earlier this year, 78 percent of all students were proficient or better in reading.

Among Nashua third-grade special education students, 45 percent of students score proficient or better in reading, with only 4 percent scoring in the highest of four categories: proficient with distinction.

Ed Hendry, Nashua associate superintendent, said he sees the increased state involvement as a positive thing for the school district, as it tries to improve overall special education services.

“The feds are really pushing for states to be far more accountable with results,” he said. “I look at this as something pretty favorable for the district.”

Hendry said the focused monitoring is the state’s way of making sure that districts are being held accountable for reducing the achievement gap. Hendry said the district would get more assistance with helping to understand and analyze data.

“It means more closely monitoring special education and for us, that’s a good thing,” he said. “We’ll be looking at test results, looking at services, so that’s healthy.”

The district has struggled with the scores of special education and English Language Learner students, which has led to several schools being labeled “in need of improvement.”

The district as a whole is also “in need of improvement.”

Hendry said schools continue to work on ensuring special students are part of the mainstream classroom and are challenged, but acknowledged that is still room for improvement.

“There’s no question we could be doing far better with our special education population,” he said.