Family Ties - Special-ed exemption can ease test stress - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

Family Ties - Special-ed exemption can ease test stress

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Posted: Sunday, February 13, 2005 7:33 am | Updated: 10:00 am, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Life just got a little easier for special-education students and their families. Maybe.

Attorney General Terry Goddard issued an opinion Wednesday that should put to rest the question of whether these kids must pass the high-stakes AIMS test to get their diplomas.

The opinion doesn’t exempt special-ed students from taking the test, but it allows local districts not to require a passing grade on the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards to graduate for those children who have individual education programs, or IEPs.

These plans are designed under federal law to take each student’s special needs into account and to accommodate them. How well that works, and how often it works without a struggle, are topics for another day.

But suffice to say that for many of these children, negotiating each and every school day is a challenge.

Academically and socially, they work harder than most but reap fewer traditional rewards. They measure success in ways typical children and their families take for granted.

So while AIMS may trouble many students and their parents, tests in general — and AIMS specifically — can send Carolyn Warden’s boy over the edge.

"On a good day, our children deal with incredible amounts of anxiety," said Warden, an Ahwatukee Foothills resident. She is president of the Asperger Parent Network and mother of a 13-year-old in the Kyrene Elementary School District.

"Our children may be able to pass the test," she said, "but there’s no test that measures duress. What did it take for these children to get there?"

Warden’s child is among some 5,000 to 6,000 in Maricopa County with autistic spectrum disorder, a wide-ranging developmental disability that can include severely impaired children as well as those who are "twice gifted" and extremely bright. Socially, these children all tend to struggle.

The Asperger Parent Network has ballooned, in just a few years, from eight Valley families to about 300, all with children who are verbal and relatively high-functioning. Go to www.apn.150m.com to learn more.

Children with Asperger syndrome tend to zero in on one particular subject to the exclusion of others.

"What separates our population from the neuro-typical kid is frequency and intensity," Warden said. "In my son’s case, it happens to be automobiles. Anything with four wheels."

He’s excited right now about a class where he’s making balsa wood race cars and learning about velocity and thrust. It’s a bright spot in a difficult journey for him and his family.

"On an average day, school’s not a very fun place to be," Warden said.

A large part of the stress for these children is making themselves acceptable to the rest of the world. "They’re OK with themselves. Their task is to make you feel comfortable."

About 10 percent of Arizona public school students are considered special-education. Some of them may take and pass AIMS with flying colors and go on to college. Parents of those children have told Warden they don’t want the bar lowered. Which is fine — for them.

"But it’s got to be a choice," she said. "Look at the IEP . . . and ask yourself realistically, ‘Is this kid going to have a stroke if he takes this test?’ "

Warden and other parents of special-education students are watching a bill in the Legislature that would exempt their kids from taking AIMS. Current law and the attorney general’s opinion leave the decision up to school districts, which they fear could lead to wide disparities.

We do enough to make life harder for children and families with special needs. Here’s a chance to ease their struggle.

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