School district accused of ‘over-identifying students’ with disabilities to improve test scores

The central office Floyd County Schools is decorated with large banners highlighting some of the state testing honors the district has received. An audit obtained by the Chronicle and Times raises questions about some of the district’s past practices in dealing with testing, as well as special needs students.

The Floyd County Schools District earned numerous accolades for achievements on state tests, including multiple “District of Distinction” honors, and in 2016, a ranking of sixth statewide, but a scathing audit suggests that some in the district may have been more concerned with test results than the quality of education provided to students.

The Kentucky Department of Education required the school district to implement a corrective action plan this year, following an audit of the district’s services for children with special needs. 

It uncovered numerous violations of state regulations concerning special needs education, and it also uncovered “inappropriate state assessment practices” and other concerns that impacted students of all abilities throughout the district. 

The 87-page audit, provided by the KDE in response to an open records request from the Floyd County Chronicle and Times, indicates that the Floyd County Schools District is using special education designations as a “substitute” for real education so students can get extra help on state tests. It reports that Floyd County schools referred students without disabilities to special education even though they didn’t need those services.  

“Assessment tools and strategies applied by the district were not used for determining the educational needs of students,” the audit said. “Rather, special education was sought as a substitute for appropriate instruction so that accommodations could be used during statewide testing in the district.”

KDE found, according to the audit, that the district encouraged parents of kindergarteners with “challenging behaviors” to withdraw their children from school, retained kindergarten students through the second grade “based on academic performance,” asked teachers to sign students up for special education services in time for the state assessment, placed kids with behavior problems on home or hospital instruction, and placed disabled students in alternative education settings where they didn’t even have a teacher. 

The audit covers the review of data and documents from 2014 through 2016, when the district was under the leadership of former Superintendent Dr. Henry Webb, who resigned last June. Webb told the Chronicle and Times this week that the claims in the audit are “utterly ridiculous and false.” The audit also looks at the 2017-2018 school year, when the district came under the leadership of former Interim Superintendent Steve Trimble. 

This audit began after parents and local agencies alleged the district was failing to comply with the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). 

The complaints included allegations that special education services were not provided in some of the district’s facilities, the decisions to place students in special education programs were not made in compliance with laws, and, among other things, that the district was “over-identifying students” with special needs so they can re-ceive accommodations on state tests. 

KDE substantiated “systemic” violations

According to the documents obtained by the Chronicle and Times, KDE officials visited the school district, starting the audit in January, and an anonymous letter that alleged “fraudulent practices” prompted a return visit in February. 

The KDE officials conducted onsite visits to the district’s central office and seven elementary, middle and high schools. They interviewed central office staff, school employees and students. They also visited five facilities and alternative programs and poured through student files, district data and documents. 

Through this audit, the KDE staff substantiated “systemic findings of noncompliance” under the federal disabilities act, as well as dozens of violations of state regulations.

Several findings were referred to other departments for further examination, including one in which the KDE learned that some disabled students were being taught “solely” from a computer program, without certified teachers to help them. 

That concern was forwarded to the Office of Educational Accountability for “further examination.” That office, established by the legislature, monitors the state’s public education system and investigates allegations of wrongdoing.

KDE also referred allegations related to “inappropriate state assessment practices” to the Testing Board of Review, the department that works to “ensure the integrity” of the state assessment system.

Allegations about the condition of the Renaissance Learning Center building in Martin were also forwarded to the state’s Office of Continuous Improvement and Support.

Floyd used ‘inappropriate practices’ to get special needs accommodations 

Under state law, there are many accommodations given to special needs students during state tests, and they’re based on the specific needs of each student.  Accommodations can include giving a student more time to finish a test, providing someone who reads the questions and answers to the student, or having a scribe — an adult who fills in the answers for a student. 

In the audit, the KDE reports that the district violated state regulations that specify how and why students are referred to special education. 

It says there is “sufficient evidence” to show “the district has employed numerous inappropriate practices to identify students for special education services,” including evaluating students for special education without parental consent, not documenting why students need special education, telling parents to ask for special education services to “bypass interventions” and other issues. 

“The purpose of the inappropriate evaluation practices was to qualify students for accommodations so students can receive accommodations through an IEP (Individual Learning Plan) for state assessments, even though the students may not be truly eligible for IDEA services,” the audit says. 

Repeatedly, the district is cited in the audit for enrolling students in special education programs or alternative learning classrooms without following the appropriate process.

KDE, according to the audit, found evidence to show that the district used an “extended year” system to retain kindergarteners through second grade, based on “academic performance.” The state starts testing students in the third grade. 

KDE officials also found, the report shows, that the district repeatedly evaluated kids for special education if they didn’t qualify the first time, referred students who scored “novice” on tests to special education and, among other things, that district staff told schools to turn in special education referrals “in a timely manner” so stu-dents could qualify for special education before the state test.

 “At least one school turned in a ‘stack of about 50 referrals’ to the district office at one time in an effort to identify students for special education before the K-Prep assessment window,” the audit says. 

Other issues found

KDE found additional areas of concern during this review of FCSD’s special needs services, including issues with the placement of students on home/hospital instruction and in alternative learning programs. 

The KDE found that the district violated state regulations by failing to ensure that disabled students are educated with students who are not disabled “to the maximum extent possible.”

Findings suggests that Floyd County schools used home/hospital instruction as “as a tool to remove students with behavior concerns” and to deal with “students with needs that were too difficult to serve” in schools.

One student was placed in home/hospital instruction because the district did not have an accessible school bus for the student, the audit said, and another student was placed on home/hospital instruction because “the district failed to have medical personnel” to help the student with his medical needs.

The audit also suggests that the school district “consistently failed” to give students “Free Appropriate Public Education.”

It notes that students are “entitled to compensatory education to replace the services the district was obligated to provide.” 

The alternative education portion of the audit highlighted concerns found at the Renaissance Learning Center in Martin and two alternative programs, offered in partnership with Mountain Comprehensive Care Center: the SIGHTS program, a school-based day treatment program for children with “serious emotional disturbance” and the Rising Point Treatment Facility, a residential treatment facility that offers a structured psychiatric program for teenaged boys with ”severe emotional disturbance.”

Detailing numerous violations, the audit describes a systemic lack of education for students in these programs.  

It suggests that the district placed students in SIGHTS for years, when it was only supposed to last three to four weeks, and that students were placed in SIGHTS “due to the lack of full resource settings available in the district.” 

According to the audit, students enrolled in SIGHTS at various schools and students residing at Rising Point, do not actually have teachers. A computer-based learning program is the “only method used to provide instruction” for them, it said. 

“No direct instruction was observed or reported,” it said.

It also noted that KDE staff “discovered noncertified staff supervise and instruct students who are placed in alternative programs and alternate facilities within the district.” 

“There are situations where there is no involvement or oversight of certified staff for the delivery of instruction to students,” the audit said. 

MCCC called a private school to teach students living at Rising Point, the audit points out, after FCSD “failed to respond” to requests to provide teachers. 

It also cites the district for failing to give end of course exams, ACT tests or the state assessments to Rising Point students, “despite being eligible and required to do so.” 

Rising Point students were not receiving credit because the district didn’t get the computer program it uses to teach them approved, the audit said.

“Students at Rising Point are not at traditional high schools. Because they used a computer program which was not approved for use at Rising Point, even though the district intended to provide them credit in this way, they cannot be awarded credits in this manner based on Floyd district policy,” the audit states. 

Former superintendent calls findings ‘ridiculous’

Former FCSD Superintendent Dr. Henry Webb called allegations that the district used special education as a substitute for real education so that students could get accommodations on state tests “ridiculous.” 

“That is utterly ridiculous and false,” Dr. Webb said about that statement in the audit. 

He said special education decisions were made at the school level, not the district level, and he had no knowledge that anything like that occurred during his tenure. 

“If you’re asking if the district took any position to put kids in special ed, the answer is absolutely not, from my understanding,” he said. “If we ever to find something like that, then it would be, it would have been dealt with aggressively, and that’s all I can tell you.” 

If that allegation were true, he said 17 or 18 different staff members would have had to “get together and say, ‘We’re going to do this.’” 

“I have no knowledge of anything like that and would have absolutely hammered people, well, they would have been terminated, well, given due process and then dealt with aggressively,” he said. 

He attributed the district’s high test scores to “extremely good” standards and expectations in county schools. 

He also emailed further comment on Monday, saying, “I am confident that the great team in Floyd County will work together to address any/all deficiencies. Part of the report questions the integrity of the school district as it relates to placing kids in special education. I am very proud of the progress in Floyd County and the great work of the teachers, leadership, kids, parents and community. The success and growth in Floyd County was due to countless hours of hard work by everyone involved. Ethical results for kids is a ‘non-negotiable’ for me. I have no knowledge of any intentional actions to undermine the integrity of the Floyd County School District while superintendent. I wish nothing but the very best for Floyd County moving forward.”

Adkins: Corrections underway

The district had 30 days to create a corrective action plan and submit it to the KDE. Superintendent Danny Adkins said that plan was written by Larry Begley, the new director overseeing special needs services, in conjunction with a KDE official. It was submitted to the KDE and Adkins expects approval by Aug. 30.

He was sent a copy of this audit shortly after he began his employment in the school district, and none of the findings took place under his watch. 

Adkins told the Chronicle and Times he pledges to follow the corrective action plan “to the letter” and work closely with the KDE to resolve issues. 

“My statement to the public is, I can’t speak to what has happened in the past, but I can speak to what’s going to happen in the future,” Adkins said. “We will follow our corrective action plan, and we will follow the laws that govern special education, and there are laws that govern everything that they mention in there. We will follow those laws to the letter.”

Adkins said he has not seen any evidence to substantiate any of the findings in the audit, but he could not say they were not true. 

“I haven’t seen anything that would lead me to believe that any of this has happened,” he said. “Now, I can’t say that it hasn’t because I wasn’t here, but I haven’t seen anything and I’ve been in and out of schools regularly … and I will tell you that our teachers are teaching, and our students are there, they’re engaged, they’re active, and our principals are leading. That’s what I see. I’ve not seen any of this that’s been … reported.”

He said the district did not refute any of the findings, but noted that his staff refuted a report that 60 kindergarten students were withdrawn from school until they could “mature,” as the audit said.

“Here’s where I’m at on refuting what KDE comes in here and tells me,” Adkins said.  “They’re the governing body. So, we’re going to work with them. Where I’m at is we’re putting our head down and we’re going to fix this, and we’re going to move forward … We didn’t refute any findings at all, but my staff has told me that wasn’t correct.”

He said the district is “in the process of putting everything where it needs to be” in the district and they started implementing items in the corrective action plan be-cause it was “highly recommended” by KDE and because “it was the right thing to do.” 

Specific steps taken to date include having an ARC training, requesting that Begley or one of his consultants attend every initial placement meeting, hiring another spe-cial needs consultant, assigning a home/hospital instructor to teach students several times per week at Rising Point and starting work to improve the Response to Intervention plan. 

The district recently changed its motto to include the phrase “all students.” Adkins said, however, that the change had nothing to do with the audit findings. 

“That reflects my personal belief,” he said. “I go back to saying that our students are not test scores. We have to provide them with opportunities … We want them to have the skills that will allow them to go out and be successful in society. That’s why that motto says what it does. We want every student who graduates to be able to walk out of here and get a job and be successful in society.”

He reiterated that statement at the board of education meeting on Monday. 

A copy of the full audit is available below. More information will be published in Friday’s edition of the newspaper. 

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