HELENA — Educators say the Office of Public Instruction’s plan to significantly raise test scores asks students with special needs to perform on tests that aren’t applicable and requires schools to do more without additional resources.

Montana is required to submit a plan to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which will replace the last major education model implemented by Congress, called No Child Left Behind. Superintendent Elsie Arntzen released a draft of the plan, which will be submitted for federal review in September.

The plan can still be altered, and some special education instructors around the state are asking OPI to do so.

Dale Lambert, director of special education in Great Falls, said some plan requirements will never be fair to students in special education. The federal mandate requires every group of students to improve at the same rate but allows states to determine the percentage. The Montana plan says four percent of non-proficient students will have to improve to proficient on state required tests each year. But more students with disabilities get non-proficient scores than the average student. And to move from one proficiency category to the other will require students with disabilities to improve scores faster than their classmates.

Before writing the ambitious plan, OPI reached out to educators for feedback. Lambert was one of the teachers who said the plan was an impossible feat for students with disabilities. While he understood the state is required to submit an ambitious plan, Lambert said the legislation was supposed to be meaningful and expects OPI to push back on the federal act.

“Sometimes you have to protest a little,” he said. “Why aren’t we looking at strengths? I find it sad.”

Lambert said the metrics used for students with disabilities are impossible to meet and negatively reinforce differences between students in general and special education.

“To me it comes across as we would have to magically cure all disabilities,” he said. “I can’t see any reason to look at a child and say ‘you can’t do this’ one more time.”

Lambert said he isn’t opposed to ambitious goals and knows schools can always improve, but giving the same test to students with disabilities ignores their enormous accomplishments.

For students with significant disabilities, he emphasizes skills such as using public transportation to get to and from a job after graduation. The school also teaches practices like basic hygiene to promote independence. He said students who are able to use a bathroom without a caregiver are three times less likely to be sexually assaulted.

“We’ve created safety,” he said. “That’s something to celebrate. But that test will never measure that.”

The requirement to significantly raise test scores also demands schools do more without additional funding.

During the 2017 session, the Office of Public Instruction didn’t advocate for any legislation to increase special education funding. After education groups and administrators said they were struggling to provide mandated services with existing resources, legislators proposed numerous bills to increase funding for urban districts and education cooperatives assisting rural schools. None passed.

Now, under ESSA, special education students are expected to improve at a greater rate than general education students, even though they historically haven’t been given equal resources.

When asked why Arntzen didn’t support special education legislation if she knew schools would soon be responsible for increasing proficiency, she said her single legislative goal was crafting general school budgets. She also said she expected policies related to special education to be dealt with by legislators. She would not talk about criticism from education advocates, who argue it is difficult to get legislators to support a policy when her agency wouldn’t speak in support of it.

“The policies on special education were going to be dealt with within the capitol complex,” she said. “If you were in my shoes and a newly minted agency director as well as someone coming from the legislative standpoint not wanting to expend 100 percent of energy toward one policy or another, I came in on 100 percent of budget.”

She emphasized her advocacy for a bill securing inflationary increases for state payments to schools. The increases are required by law.

Federal law requires school districts to provide appropriate special education services regardless of state funding levels. In May, the Helena School Board of Trustees approved a non-voted levy for $240,075 to help pay for special education services, according to Assistant Superintendent Greg Upham.

“It’s unfortunate that OPI wasn’t at the table because frankly when you talk about resources for our community, the one primary resource we need now is human resources,” he said.

Upham said the majority of funds from the levy added teachers and paraeducators to assist students who require an adult to be with them full-time.

“We simply need more human resources to assist with helping students reach their maximum potential,” he said.

Despite his concern about providing special education services, Upham said the district welcomes high expectations. He also said the plan is new and he has faith in his teachers to make ESSA work.

“It’s up to us as professionals in the education business to assist and help navigate those metrics so they meet the needs of our students.”

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