Twelve-year-old Sara was counting with her teachers as she was moved from her wheel chair to a lift that aids her in walking. Soon after, Sara began strolling through the halls of New Dawn.
"This is big for her," noted Terry Neumeyer, New Dawn principal. "A year ago she couldn't even take steps. This is bigger than passing a physics class."
Unfortunately, Sara's progress isn't the kind of success the Missouri Assessment Program (MAP) test cares to measure. Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, all children are expected to be proficient in reading and math by 2014.
But being "proficient" doesn't mean staying on task, reading without assistance or having the social skills it takes to maintain a job. If it did, children with individual education plans (IEP) like Sara would pass with flying colors.
As the standardized state test approaches this spring, Sara's mother, Malinda Darter, knows her daughter and other children can only do the best to their ability.
Darter and her husband, James, are the parents of 18 children, many of which are considered to have special needs. Their disabilities include Down's Syndrome, autism, reading/learning disabilities, educable mental retardation and cerebral palsy, but some of their other children have no disabilities at all. Thirteen of the children attend New Madrid County R-1 Schools and New Dawn State School.
The Darters are only one set of thousands of parents trying to figure out how their children are supposed to measure up to the expectations of the federal No Child Left Behind law.
"When you first hear about it, it sounds wonderful," Darter said. "No child left behind. But in reality there are always going to be people who are not going to read at a third grade level. Why take any self esteem they have away from them?"
Students' results are divided into subgroups of blacks, whites, Hispanics, IEP, limited English and free/reduced lunch students.
If even one of those groups fails to meet progress targets for two years in a row, an entire school can be listed as failing and face a list of consequences.
"This is discrimination," Darter said. "We have a multicultural home and have children in all of these subgroups. I just don't think it's fair to call them a failure because they can't score proficient on a test."
Darter also worries her children will be resented in the classroom by teachers who may lose their jobs because her children aren't scoring at the proficient level.
Out of a mother's concern, Darter began researching online, looking for other states' results, etc. to find out more about the law. While Darter has not contacted anyone at the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, she has contacted her state representative and plans to send out letters. She's also contacted the Office for Civil Rights only to find no lawsuits for discrimination have been filed yet due to lack of proof.
In 2003, nearly half of Missouri schools -- 1,046 schools of 2,053 --
were dubbed as failing to meet the standards in reading and math.
"They're (state and federal government) saying that students must score at a certain level, but they're not even offering a solution," Darter commented. "Just because someone passed a law, it doesn't mean our children are going to be cured."
Cindi Jones, special education director for New Madrid County R-1, admitted while the goal of all children proficient in reading and math is wonderful to have, it's simply not realistic.
"We all try to achieve progress and improvement --
I just don't think our schools should be held accountable for things they may have no control over. As much as we would like to be able to, we cannot change some children's disabilities," Jones said.
After-school tutoring is available at NMCC, but the post-high school preparation for IEP students, such as social skills needed for transition, is not getting the attention it deserves, Jones pointed out. Teachers have to spend so much time preparing their students for the MAP, they're running out of time for other things, she said.
Last December education officials passed a law letting 1 percent of all children in a district take a test more suited to their abilities, which is called the MAP-Alternative.
However, these tests will receive scores of "level not determined" and count against school districts, Jones explained.
"These are tests based according to their abilities," Jones stated. "It doesn't seem fair that these children do the very best to their ability and work so hard, but their scores are automatically placed into a level not determined." Level not determined includes not only IEP students, but also students who are hospitalized or in rehab.
As a result, some students who are reading at the third grade level are having to take a communication arts test on the 11th grade level, Jones pointed out.
Students are also missing out on electives such as music and art because they're required to take math and science courses geared to the MAP, Darter added.
Some IEP students will go on to college, others will not, and many of them do enlist in the military, Jones said.
"That's another thing," Jones said. "Because we're focusing so much on the MAP, it's taking away time to prepare them for the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) test."
Both Jones and Darter think the IEP team should determine what the students are tested on since it's the IEP team that determines a students' goals for the school year.
"That's why they're called special," Jones said. "You can't lump them all in one group and say the entire group is going to perform at the same level. If that was the case, they wouldn't be special."