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Chula Vista School District Failed To Accommodate Students With Learning Disabilities

Evening Edition

Aired 9/2/14 on KPBS News.

Next spring, kindergarten through 12th-grade students across California will be tested to see if they meet new Common Core standards, and many districts will also continue testing for their own local standards.

Next spring, kindergarten through 12th-grade students across California will be tested to see if they meet new Common Core standards, and many districts will also continue testing for their own local standards.

Last spring, Chula Vista Elementary School District gave two big tests to its students, and they might have violated state mandates to make testing modifications for students with disabilities.

Testing dominates the school year now. Students like fourth grader Abby Eten feel the stress. Abby said she feels like a rubber band.

“If I keep on stretching it and stretching it, it's going to break,” she said.

Abby has more challenges than other fourth graders: She’s dyslexic. Abby’s mother, Justina Eten, said she’s always surprised by how smart her daughter is.

flickr / aayushi.g24

A painting depicting how letters and numbers can look to a dyslexic.

“Conceptually she understands it and even her teachers have said that,” Justina said. “She’s highly conceptual, she gets it. It's just the processing of her brain — from understanding it to writing it down.”

This past spring was especially challenging for Abby.

First, students in the district took the field test for Common Core to see if the new testing system would work. In California the test is called the Smarter Balanced test.

At the same time, Chula Vista Elementary School District students took the district test, called Local Measures Assessments.

John Nelson, assistant superintendent of instructional services, said the district has been giving their local test for more than 15 years. He said the test is for assessing “student reading, mathematics and for the last six years we’ve been scoring writing.”

Third-grade teacher Carla Kriss said for both tests, students with disabilities were not given test modifications.

“Last year we did pilot the Smarter Balanced test and our local measures tests as well,” Kriss said. “The unfortunate thing is that when the testing is happening, there were no accommodations made for the special education children.”

Some estimates have the number of dyslexic people at about 17 percent.

When asked about the disability accommodations for the testing, Nelson only spoke about the Common Core test.

“We are working on that. The state has a whole new list of accommodations,” Nelson said. “Each school will be looking at the child in order to identify what accommodations need to be provided for that child to be more successful. ”

However Justina Eten, Abby’s mother, gave a slightly different story.

“The reasoning I was told from the district was that they only got what they were going to be testing on a week prior to when they released it to the schools,” Justina Eten said.

But the local district tests have been given for 15 years, according to Nelson. Teacher Carla Kriss said this year the district did not allow disability accommodations for that test also.

“I had a student last year who sat in front of the computer screen for six hours total over two days time and he struggled and I couldn’t do anything to help him,” Kriss said.

Abby’s mother Justina Eten spoke with the district.

“I told them it's illegal, they told me that ‘You have to understand, your child still has to be held accountable,’” she said.

She said the district was insistent on giving her daughter the standard tests “even though she is dyslexic.”

Justina Eten remembers her daughter sitting at the kitchen table crying and calling herself stupid.

“What do you do for that?” Eten wondered. “At that point learning is not happening any more. You're not educating the child.”

Teachers worry that students who have poor test scores — because they were not given proper accommodations — will affect teachers' careers as well as the students' educations. Kriss said her students’ scores for local measures are going on teachers' evaluations.

“They’re used in a punitive manner,” she said. “So it hasn’t been a safe harbor year for us at all.”

Nelson said that each school individually needs to figure out what accommodations to make for students with disabilities.

“Each school had to learn what those accommodations were and what would be appropriate for those children, and they work that at the school site level,” Nelson said.

Justina Eten wants her daughter to have all the opportunities she deserves, but said that inappropriate testing will have a long term impact on her daughter's education.

“They’re basically affecting her future negatively,” she said.

Abby Eten said she’s trying her best.

“I’m trying to do stuff right. It's just that it’s really hard,” Abby said.

The district chose not to respond to the specific concerns raised about requiring Abby Eten to take both the Common Core and the Local Measures tests without making accommodations for her disability.

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