Bill would allow special ed students to skip ACT

Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- State Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, spoke Tuesday to the House Education Committee about his bill, which would exempt high school special education students from taking the ACT and other standardized tests. The panel approved the measure 14-1.
Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- State Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, spoke Tuesday to the House Education Committee about his bill, which would exempt high school special education students from taking the ACT and other standardized tests. The panel approved the measure 14-1.

A bill that would lift the state rule that high school special education students take the ACT and other tests passed the House Education Committee on a 14-1 vote Tuesday.

The measure, House Bill 343, next faces action on the House floor.

The legislation would apply to students with individualized education plans who are not pursuing a high school diploma. Those students typically aim for a certificate of attendance or other recognition.

State Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, sponsor of HB343, said giving the ACT — a test of college readiness — and other exams to special education students “does not capture anything that is meaningful or relevant.”

Edwards said teachers have told him that forcing students to take the test has made for a “horrible situation” and that some parents believe the requirement amounts to abuse.

The legislation also would ban the state from penalizing schools in annual, state-issued school performance scores and letter grades for students not taking the test.

Under current rules, students who do not take the ACT get a zero on the test, which is factored in to the school’s annual letter grade.

Joan Hunt, executive counsel for the state Department of Education, told the committee that the federal government requires “consequences” for schools where students do not take the ACT and other assessments aimed at improving student performance.

Edwards said the state could seek a waiver from federal officials.

“It doesn’t have to be a zero,” he said. “It has to be a consequence.”

Under a new state grading policy, ACT results will count for 25 percent of a high school’s annual performance score starting in the fall.

A separate bill approved by the committee last week would block that change.

How many students would be covered by Edwards’ bill is unclear.

Erin Bendily, assistant superintendent of education, said students who are not pursuing a high school diploma amount to about 2 percent of a category of students who qualify for modest assistance on standardized tests.

Backers of the measure said there is a clear correlation between the state’s Top 50 public schools, with small percentages of special education students, and the lowest-scoring 50 schools, where special education students make up 20 or 30 percent of enrollment or more.

The committee approved another measure, House Bill 613, that is similar to the Edwards bill. But it requires parents to take action to have their child exempted from tests.

The Edwards bill would only require that special education students take the exam if their IEP recommends it or the parents request it.

“This is an opt in instead of opt out,” Edwards said.