A learning-challenged mind is a terrible thing to waste

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By Jim Waters

Dr. Seuss of the “I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!” fame once concluded: “The more you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”

Dr. Seuss understands what too many in Kentucky’s education system apparently don’t – especially when it comes to children with learning disabilities: Learning is directly tied to reading. Much reading, much learning. No reading, no learning.

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The latest information from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reveals that more than half of all students deemed “learning disabled” by Kentucky’s education experts are going absolutely nowhere.

These experts decided this year that the reading skills of 53 percent of the commonwealth’s fourth-graders with disabilities are so far in the tank that they cannot even sit for the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test. It’s even worse in the eighth grade, where a whopping 58 percent of learning-disabled students were excluded from this year’s NAEP tests.

Most of those excluded students probably can’t read at all,” said Richard G. Innes, education analyst for the Bluegrass Institute and a nationally recognized authority on testing policies.

Of course, severely learning-disabled children are incapable of taking a normal reading test. This is reasonably reflected nationwide where an average of 23 percent of fourth-graders and 24 percent of eighth-graders with disabilities were excluded from NAEP’s 2011 reading tests.

But the nation’s 24 percent is a far cry from the Bluegrass State’s 58 percent.

Excluding more learning-disabled students creates the likelihood that Kentucky’s NAEP reading scores are inflated, which places yet another arrow in the quiver of intellectually thin educational snake-oil salesmen and their pals in Frankfort to use in the form of claims that the commonwealth is making significant academic improvement.

For example, a sloppy report from the University of Kentucky’s Center for Business and Economic Research this past summer relied on NAEP scores to claim that the state’s education ranking had improved greatly – from No. 48 in 1990 to No. 33 in 2010.

It’s “a good news story,” said report author Michael Childress.

Not only is it beyond a stretch to believe that a No. 33 ranking is “good news,” Childress’ analysis is shallow and doesn’t even allow for the fact that excluding a large number of students could distort his conclusions, which weakens all credibility of claims that our state’s educational performance is making significant improvement. Even Terry Holliday, the state’s education commissioner, has questioned the validity of the commonwealth’s reading scores.

Kentucky also bucks the national trend on NAEP reading exclusion. While the Bluegrass State’s exclusion rates have increased, the nation’s overall rates have declined.

Although the scores of many disabled students included in other states’ assessments may not be the greatest, the fact that they can at least participate in the accountability process – while many in Kentucky cannot – means other states seem much more serious about teaching these kids to read.

Even Mississippi – the object of the oft-heard expression of relief: “thank God for Mississippi” in the halls of Frankfort – excluded only 10 percent of its fourth-grade students with learning disabilities from the 2011 NAEP reading test.

Perhaps the Magnolia State has taken to heart the observation of one of its most famous residents, B.B. King: “The beautiful thing about learning is that no one can take it away from you.”

It would be a beautiful thing in Kentucky if we started acknowledging that no child deserves having their opportunity to learn snatched away from them just to protect the image of a dysfunctional system.

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