PHOTO/CAPTION: Loretta White
Victory for Blind Students in Maryland
From the Editor: Blind students and their parents know firsthand how many subtle and overt ways school systems have found through the years to discriminate against them. Sometimes the students are denied the chance to go places and do things that their sighted classmates have permission to. Sometimes they are excused from activities that are determined to be too hard or too dangerous or too inconvenient. Almost always the reason given is couched in terms of the best interests of the student. Much of the time uninformed students and their families accept such dicta on the grounds that education professionals must know what is best, and sometimes, it must be admitted, they are secretly relieved to be excused from competing. But regardless of the motives on either side, when reasonable accommodation would make participation possible, refusing to encourage that participation is discrimination pure and simple.
Increasingly parents and students are refusing to lie down meekly and accept these rulings. Members of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC), the NFB's parents division, now understand the importance of resisting discrimination and teaching their children to do so whenever it arises. In 1995 members of the Maryland Parents Division began complaining about the newly introduced Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP). Administered in the third, fifth, and eighth grades, this battery of tests evaluates how well each school is doing at educating its students. Would anyone care to guess which group of youngsters has conveniently been left out of this state-wide testing program? You guessed it: Braille readers! Here is the resolution passed at the 1995 convention of the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland on this subject:
Resolution 95 - 4
WHEREAS, as part of its program of evaluating each public school in the State of Maryland, the Maryland Department of Education requires that every public school student in the third, fifth, and eighth grades take the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program test (MSPAP); and
WHEREAS, the scores of students who take this test using a reader are not used at all in tabulating the combined scores given to each school by the staff and local districts; and
WHEREAS, the Department of Education neither offers the MSPAP in Braille, believing that its contents cannot be translated into Braille, nor offers some equivalent test the result of which could be used along with the results of the MSPAP to gauge school performance; and
WHEREAS, the current MSPAP, in fact, cannot be translated into Braille without compromising its validity; and
WHEREAS, the Department of Education has recently sought an opinion from the Office of the State Attorney General concerning whether it is required to offer the MSPAP to students who wish to take the test in Braille; and
WHEREAS, laws such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act collectively require that disabled students, including blind students, receive a free, appropriate public education that includes full and equal participation in all of the programs and activities offered by public schools; and
WHEREAS, creating and administering a test for the purpose of measuring school performance in such a way as to exclude blind students from full and equal participation is a blatant and pernicious form of discrimination against the Blind:
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland in convention assembled this 5th day of November, 1995, in the City of Ocean City, Maryland, that we do condemn and deplore the foregoing policies and practices of the Maryland Department of Education; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that we call upon the Maryland Department of Education to cease, at once, using the MSPAP or any other standardized test used for the purpose of assessing school performance that denies to blind students the opportunity to participate fully and equally with sighted students in the school assessment process and to take whatever steps necessary to ensure that any future test designed for the purpose of assessing school performance will guarantee such full and equal participation.
That was the resolution passed at the 1995 convention of the NFB of Maryland. It was clear and decisive, and one would have thought that, with representatives from the State Department of Education present, the resolution would have taken care of the problem. But things are never that simple in a bureaucracy. In fact, nothing at all seemed to happen to resolve the problem until Loretta White filed a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights, U.S. Department of Education, on June 6, 1996. Until that date no one could be bothered to examine the challenges involved in Brailling the MSPAP test. Then suddenly Sharon Maneki, President of the NFB of Maryland, and James Gashel, Director of Governmental Affairs for the National Federation of the Blind, were invited to a meeting at the State Department of Education on June 24 to discuss establishing a committee to consider Brailling the MSPAP test. The committee was formed and then adjusted when it became clear that some of the out-of-state members would not attend its meetings. Eventually Ruby Ryles, a recognized Braille educator, and Loretta White herself joined the committee, which made its report on October 1, 1996. The following is the speech describing the MSPAP struggle delivered by Loretta White, President of the Maryland Parents Division, at the 1996 Maryland convention, beginning with the editor's note as the report appeared in the Winter 1996-97 issue of the Braille Spectator, the publication of the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland:
The MSPAP: a Disturbing
Trend in the Education
of Blind Children in Maryland
by Loretta White
From the [newsletter] Editor: Loretta White is the President of the NFB of Maryland's Parents Division. Despite her busy schedule she has been an active member of the affiliate and has been responsible for initiating a number of innovative programs to help blind youngsters and teen-agers. Loretta delivered the following remarks during the Saturday morning session of our convention. The agenda was deliberately arranged so that her address was given upon Superintendent Grasmick's arrival at the convention. [Nancy Grasmick is the Superintendent of Education of Maryland.] All of us who heard Loretta's remarks, the Superintendent included, were deeply moved by Loretta's keen and sensitive observations. This is what she said:
Before I begin my talk today, I'd like to share with you a little about myself. I have been a member of the National Federation of the Blind for over nine years now, and I've been an officer or board member in the parents division for about seven of those years. I'm a special educator, and I'm working toward becoming a teacher of the visually impaired. I'm very happily married, but the bottom line of what brings me here today and what I think qualifies me to speak to you is that I am also a mom. Particularly, I am the mother of a blind child. My daughter Nicole is almost ten years old.
I'm sure all of us have heard of MSPAP (Maryland School Performance Assessment Program), but what does it mean, and how does it affect our blind children who use Braille? Well, to find out, I went to the Internet. I searched the acronym "MSPAP" only, and I was stunned at what I found. There are ninety-six Web sites on the Internet related to MSPAP. As I sifted through, I found a lot of good information from the state and several counties. I'll summarize Calvert County's definition from its MSPAP Handbook:
MSPAP stands for the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program. It is a statewide testing program to evaluate how schools are doing. Results are used to make improvements in instruction. MSPAP tells schools whether or not their students are meeting state standards for educational achievement. It is different from other tests in that it is not multiple-choice or short-answer. MSPAP is more a test of skills rather than knowledge. It tests students' abilities to apply what they have learned to real-life problems. It includes reading, language usage, writing, math, social studies, and science. Schools are scored in each subject. All students in the third, fifth, and eighth grade who are working toward a high school diploma are tested. MSPAP is important to all students every year because it requires good thinking skills, which have to be taught and developed over a period of time. The test is given during the first two full weeks in May with each grade testing for ninety minutes a day for one week.
So what about students with disabilities and MSPAP?
Well, the State Department of Education has a fifty-one-page document called "The Requirements and Guidelines for Exemptions, Excuses, and Accommodations for Maryland Statewide Assessment Programs," dated October 10, 1995. The general principles are basically that all students are to be included to the fullest extent possible, and accommodations are to be made to ensure valid assessment of a student's real achievement and are designed to assist a student to move from dependence toward independence.
Both as a parent of children with and without special needs and as a special educator, I think this is a good document, because basically it requires the inclusion of all students who are pursuing a high school diploma. And since MSPAP is about accountability for the education of our students, it is right that we be accountable for the education of each and every student.
So blind students take the MSPAP right alongside their sighted peers, and we all live happily ever after. Well, not quite. Let me go back again to the Requirements Document. Special accommodations listed include scheduling, setting, equipment, presentation, response, and level of participation. So it would seem that the state is making a real effort to include all kinds of disabilities in the MSPAP, with the exception of one group: blind students.
Let's look at the equipment again. The test provides sign language interpreters; large print; calculators; electronic devices, including mechanical spellers, word processors, computers, augmented communication devices, CCTV amplification; audiotaped materials; visual displays; written copies; and other. But no Braille. I personally do not know of a single disability that is not accommodated other than blindness. Excluding Braille users from the MSPAP reinforces existing problems on multiple levels. It reinforces a philosophical problem; it reinforces an educational problem; and it reinforces a personal problem.
The federal government is committed to the provision of equal education for persons with disabilities, including equality of opportunity to participate at all levels of education. This is evident in legislation such as IDEA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Check out the policy statements from OSERS over the last five or so years.
MSPAP tries to emulate the real world. I'm sure you've all heard of the story of the engineer who could give you the square root of a door knob but couldn't turn it. Well, the purpose of MSPAP is to see if the students can turn the doorknob, so to speak. And this is a good thing. Further, MSPAP checks to see if the students can do this individually, in pairs, in groups, with others they are used to working with, and with those they are not. Again, this is a good thing because this is how the real world works. And isn't that the bottom line, to educate persons who can function successfully in the real world?
In a very negative sense, excluding Braille users from MSPAP does imitate the real world. It mirrors the 70% unemployment rate of blind persons in this country. And it goes beyond that. Excluding our children from MSPAP raises the question of whether or not we are truly committed to finding a place for blind people in our society. It suggests that it is acceptable to exclude blind children.
The exclusion of blind students from MSPAP also creates an educational problem. Again, the purpose of MSPAP is to raise the level of performance and to create accountability by the schools for the education of our children. It is clearly an attempt to reform and revamp instruction. It is a clear statement that we need to improve the education of our children. This is not anything you don't already know. It is regularly in the news.
Excluding our Braille users from MSPAP also means excluding our Braille teachers from the continuing education they need to keep up with improvements in education and instructional practices. At a recent state-level meeting about Brailling the MSPAP test, which included representatives from across the state, a teacher of the visually impaired raised the issue that they were not included in any MSPAP in-service or training activities and that they did not have access to the materials. This meeting included teachers of the visually impaired and administrators from across the state; and, while there were nods of agreement, not one person said his or her county included teachers of the visually impaired. And I don't think I need to belabor the fact that, when our students are placed in local schools, the teacher of the visually impaired basically shoulders the responsibility for the student's education.
So why not just get around the Braille issue by using readers? Because it will not work. First of all, how many third or fifth graders have been taught the skills needed to use a reader to get an assignment done? But far beyond that, the key to MSPAP is literacy. Can the student read? And I don't mean just decode words on a page. Can the student understand and use what he reads? Can she locate information to answer a question, pick out major points, identify relevant details, follow directions? It is not reasonable to do this with a reader. For example, if a reader skims for major points, whose skills are you testing, the Braille user's or the reader's? And since MSPAP is inextricably linked to the real world, I wonder how many of you have a reader available and ready to go each time you need Something read.
The last quibble I have with the exclusion of Braille users from MSPAP is what it does to the student. Unless you have a child who is in school or you yourself are in a school, you may not realize the changes MSPAP has brought. It is truly creating fundamental changes in the way we teach our children and what they are exposed to on a daily basis. Preparation for MSPAP begins on that first day of the school year and escalates all the way to the first two weeks in May, when it is administered. It creates an underlying feeling of excitement and importance. Many schools dedicate a certain time each week when all students are to be engaged in MSPAP activities. I saw a sign at the door of a first grade class that read "MSPAP is Life" in big letters, and underneath it said "Thursday is MSPAP morning." I have seen the MSPAP icons and words on bulletin boards and hanging in the halls of elementary and middle schools alike. Many schools have a MSPAP word of the day, which they discuss and define on morning announcements.
Last year I taught in a Baltimore City school, had one child in a Baltimore City school, and had two more children in a school in Anne Arundel County. Starting in about January of last year, we shared over dinner what our MSPAP word was for the week. Almost every newsletter for each of their schools addresses MSPAP, and we even received forms from the school offering parent training on how to prepare for MSPAP and home activities to do with our children. Even though I filled out every one and returned it to school, I never received a single one. When I asked the principal about it, I was told "Oh, your child won't take the MSPAP, so she doesn't need it." Wait a minute. The purpose of MSPAP is to improve the education of our children. "What do you mean my child doesn't need it?"
Meanwhile, back on the ranch, our children are experiencing all this in the announcements, in homeroom activities, etc. Even when the involvement is indirect, they get excited. And this is intentional. We want our students pumped up and confident and ready to take the tests. But then when the test comes, our blind students are left out for a whole week. And I'm here to tell you, these kids are not stupid. They do feel left out. They do feel different. They do feel inadequate. My daughter was a third grader last year. She was crushed when she was not allowed to take MSPAP. Even though we had told her it was not Brailled, her answer was "But Mom, Mrs. Kearney said it was for all third graders, and I'm a third grader, too." I had no answer.
In conclusion, I would like us to consider what might happen if our Braille users were included in MSPAP. First, our teachers of the visually impaired would have to receive the same training as other teachers so they would be able to deliver instruction that would prepare the students to participate. Second, MSPAP requires that students have "prior knowledge," so teachers of content areas such as science and social studies and other instructional staff would be put on notice that these students are expected to learn the same information as their print-using peers.
Third, our Braille students would learn how to participate in cooperative learning in pairs and group activities, because that is how many of the MSPAP activities are administered. Fourth, principals and schools in general would pay more attention to how and how much our Braille students are learning because now these students would count on the school's performance report card from the state. It would create accountability for the education of our blind children, and overall, this would result in full participation across the curriculum and across all activities to the greatest extent possible. Isn't that what we wanted in the first place?
There you have Loretta's remarks, and things continued to hang fire throughout the winter. OCR complaints are notoriously slow. Then, in early May of 1997 the log jam broke. In late April the Maryland State Department of Education decided that it couldn't win this one and sent a list of assurances of compliance to the Office for Civil Rights. Since Mrs. White's original complaint had been against both MSDE and the Anne Arundel County School District, the department also saw to it that the school district submitted a similar list of assurances. The following is the letter from the Philadelphia office of OCR notifying Loretta White of what had happened and passing along the list of assurances. Here are both documents:
U.S. Department of Education
Office for Civil Rights
Brenda L. Wolff, Acting Director
Philadelphia Office, Eastern Division
April 30, 1997
Ms. Loretta G. White
Dear Ms. White:
This letter is to inform you of the determination of the Office for Civil Rights (OCR), U.S. Department of Education (the Department), regarding the resolution of the above-referenced complaint against the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) alleging that the MSDE discriminated on the basis of disability. Specifically, you alleged that MSDE discriminated against your daughter on the basis of disability by failing to administer the Maryland State Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) test in accordance with the provisions of your daughter's Individualized Educational Program (IEP). Please be advised that we are still in the process of resolving the same allegations that were filed with our office against the Anne Arundel County Schools (the District), OCR Docket Number 03961219.
OCR is responsible for enforcing Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) and its implementing regulation, at 34 C.F.R. Part 104, which prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability in educational institutions that receive federal financial assistance. OCR has jurisdiction as a designated agency under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), and its implementing regulation, at 28 C.F.R. Part 35, over complaints alleging discrimination on the basis of disability that are filed against public elementary and secondary education systems and institutions, public institutions of higher education and vocational education (other than schools of medicine, dentistry, nursing, and other health-related schools), and public libraries.
Under OCR policy complaint allegations may be resolved upon the submission of written commitments from the recipient that specify the action(s) to be taken to resolve the complaint allegations appropriately. On April 29, 1997, the MSDE submitted such commitments to OCR (copy enclosed), thereby resolving all of the complaint allegations discussed above. As is our standard practice, implementation of the commitments will be monitored by OCR.
This letter is not intended, nor should it be construed, to cover any other issues under Section 504 and the ADA or their implementing regulations which are not specifically discussed therein.
Please be advised that federal regulations prohibit recipients of federal financial assistance from taking actions which intimidate, threaten, coerce or discriminate against individuals who exercise their statutory rights, or because they filed a complaint with OCR or are taking part in the complaint resolution process. If you feel that such actions have occurred, you may notify this office.
Under the Freedom of Information Act, it may be necessary to release this document and related correspondence and records upon request. If OCR receives such a request, we will seek to protect, to the extent provided by law, personal information that, if released, could constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy.
If you have any questions, please contact Mrs. Yvonne R. Davis, Equal Opportunity Specialist, at (215) 596-6769.
Enclosed with this letter were the Maryland State Department of Education's list of assurances of compliance.
Here is the document:
In order to resolve complaint number 03964033 filed with the Office for Civil Rights (OCR), the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) provides the following assurances:
1. For the Spring 1997 administration of the Maryland
School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) for fifth graders, the MSDE will develop and administer a Brailled version of the test, as a pilot effort and will ensure that the test is administered to blind fifth graders whose educational program includes receiving printed material through a system of Braille. By April 30, 1997, the MSDE will provide written notice to all school districts in Maryland of their obligation to provide the Brailled test to all qualified blind students in the fifth grade and advising of the need to provide written justification if it is determined that any individual blind student should be exempted from the test. Also, at the same time, the MSDE will notify the districts of their obligation to provide practice sessions to those students who will be participating in the test. The MSDE will review the administration of the test and analyze the results of the pilot MSPAP administration by October 1, 1997.
2. The MSDE will notify all Maryland school districts
that, starting with the Spring 1997 administration of the test and every year thereafter, all qualified blind students who attend schools in its jurisdiction must be provided the necessary accommodations to enable them to participate in the MSPAP testing program, practice sessions, and home study as effectively as students without visual impairments can participate. The accommodations may include the use of Braille readers and scribes, special equipment, special instructions to teachers who are preparing the students for the test, extra time, or any other modifications to its testing program as will enable each otherwise-qualified blind student to participate in the MSPAP testing program as effectively as can students without visual impairments.
3. For purposes of these assurances, districts will not be
required to provide the MSPAP to an individual blind student if an appropriate district Admission, Review, and Dismissal (ARD) committee provides written justification of its determination that the student should be exempted from the test for a reason(s) other than the student's visual impairment alone.
4. The MSDE will permit a qualified blind student to be
exempted from all or part of the MSPAP test only if the appropriate ARD committee of the local school district can demonstrate that the accommodations necessary to enable such student to participate in the testing program, would fundamentally alter the testing program. The MSDE will provide to OCR by December 31, 1997, a written report listing all blind students exempted from the 1997-98 test, the accommodation needed for the student, and the basis of its belief that the accommodation would fundamentally alter the testing program.
The MSDE agrees to report to OCR the following information regarding the 1997 MSPAP:
1. By June 30, 1997, the number of blind
district, school, and grade, as of January 2, 1997;
2. By April 30, 1997, a description of the steps that will be taken to accommodate blind students in preparing for and in taking the test;
3. By June 30, 1997, by name or unique identifier, each blind student in the third, fifth, or eighth grade who took the MSPAP test and a description of the accommodations that were provided to make the student's participation possible.
4. By June 30, 1997, by name or unique identifier, each blind student who is in the third, fifth, or eighth grade and who did not take the test for reasons related solely to his or her blindness. For each such student identify the school, grade, extent of disabilities, and reason(s) for not taking the test, and the identification of the persons making the decision to exclude the student from the test; and
5. By June 30, 1997, a copy of the notice sent to all the school districts outlining their obligations to provide the Braille test and other accommodations. By December 31, 1997, the name or unique identifier of each blind student expected to be exempted from the Spring 1998 test, the accommodation that would be needed, and the basis for the belief that the accommodation would fundamentally alter the testing program.
Signed by Nancy S. Grasmick, State Superintendent,
dated April 29, 1997.
Something truly significant has been accomplished in the fight to establish the equality of blind students in Maryland. Moreover, the precedent will be important in other states and situations when so-called educators try to argue that blind students should not be expected to compete with their sighted peers. Will this victory help Niki, the child for whom the entire effort was made in the first place? Perhaps eventually. But the Anne Arundel County School District continues to be so rigid and vindictive that the Whites decided to pull Niki out and began home schooling her part way through this past academic year. Niki is doing well, but as things stand now, she will not be in public school during the first week of May of her fifth-grade year. Whether they know it or not, all blind students in Maryland owe a debt of gratitude to Niki, her mother, and the National Federation of the Blind.