[Documents menu] Documents menu

Probe Uncovers Violations In Schools

By Rick Green, The Hartford Courant, Thursday 1 April 1999

Low-achieving students in East Hartford were illegally exempted from the high-stakes Connecticut Mastery Test while others have been placed in badly organized special education programs, state Department of Education investigators have found.

Local education leaders say the problems were limited to a small number of children and are being corrected.

A more troubling question remains: How will this town handle the hundreds of needy students streaming into local schools each year?

In the last 10 years, East Hartford schools have grown by a third, or nearly 2,000 students, many of these coming from Hartford schools. A sizable number of arriving students are behind in their studies or have a learning or emotional disability, straining this blue-collar town to the point that it has gone to court to try to force the state to provide more in education funding.

East Hartford has always been a good system, said board of education Chairwoman Jill Upton, pointing to exemplary programs at the high school, the curriculum for gifted and talented students and model special education classes at the elementary level. Right now it is a question of whether we can continue to do that.

Special education services are guaranteed under a federal law requiring that students with certain disabilities receive a free and appropriate education. It is up to local districts to identify children needing extra services.

Superintendent of Schools George Drumm said East Hartford schools are faced with admitting throngs of new students who show up in September with no records but who appear to need special education services.

The students come in right up to the CMT testing period. We don't have their records. Are these kids special education? Should they take the test? We've had a major influx of special education students. It's a major challenge, Drumm said.

The statewide mastery test in reading, writing and math is given to fourth-, sixth- and eighth-graders each fall. The recently completed state investigations -- initiated by detailed complaints last year from two disgruntled East Hartford special education teachers -- raise questions about services for some of East Hartford's neediest students and whether the pressure to do well on the CMTs compelled some educators to try to keep low-achieving students from taking the test.

The investigations showed:

For at least part of one year during the 1990s, a refer and exempt policy was in effect, in which potential special education students were referred and did not take the test -- a violation of state law.

Another group of eighth-graders in danger of being retained would not have taken the test except that the state intervened last year.

For special education students, the entire process of referral, evaluation, identification and placement, etc., breaks down at the middle school level ... there is a lack of clarity and understanding of the special education procedures.

East Hartford, which has among the highest percentages of its students enrolled in special education -- 18 percent -- fails to offer alternatives to placing some children in special education, state investigators found.

State Education Commissioner Theodore S. Sergi said there was no evidence of a coordinated effort in East Hartford to limit test takers in order to keep average CMT scores high. The state investigation involved a relatively small number of students, about three dozen.

But East Hartford exempts more students than nearly any other community in Connecticut, except for Hartford or New London. For example, 19 percent of eighth-graders did not take the reading portion of the exam last fall. By contrast, in Manchester all but 3 percent of eighth-graders did. To exempt a student from the CMT, state law requires that the student be enrolled in a bilingual program or in special education.

They have been exempting too many students from the mastery test. They are aware of that problem, Sergi said. He said he was satisfied that East Hartford has taken steps to address the exemptions and the special education problems.

The two East Hartford special education teachers, Debbie Tigno and Stella Agront, charged in a complaint to the state last year that children were misidentified as special education students when they weren't, services were not being provided to students, and that there was a policy of exempting students from the CMTs if the teachers feel they might have difficulty passing.

In a further twist, while confirming some allegations the teachers made and ordering East Hartford to make changes, the state has recommended disciplinary action against Tigno and Agront for their egregious violation of student confidentiality rights, a federal offense. The state says that Tigno and Agront had copies of student records they had no legal right to have in their possession.

Tigno and Agront declined to publicly comment about their charges or the state findings.

Local officials have denied the teachers' allegations, while acknowledging problems in special education and that some students were inappropriately exempted from the CMT. East Hartford administrators say they are investigating whether to discipline Tigno and Agront, particularly if they have illegally obtained student records.

It is absolutely not true that students were targeted for exemption from the CMTs, said James J. Fallon Jr., assistant superintendent for instructional services. He said the town was merely trying to provide additional services for apparently needy children and for a short period, it was assumed that these children could be exempted from the testing.

Across the state, scores on the CMTs are increasingly viewed as a measure of the overall economic health of a community and can mean the difference between homeowners' staying or moving.

East Hartford's scores are competitive with similar towns, but below overall state averages. However, East Hartford was one of a handful of districts Sergi wrote to last year about inordinately high test exemption rates.

There has never been a conversation here on how to steer kids away from the CMTs, Drumm said. We made one mistake and then corrected it. It's time to move on.

The state has been slow to respond to the challenges East Hartford faces with growing numbers of needy students, local educators and politicians say.

Under the state's complicated school funding formula, East Hartford could be getting as much as $10.5 million more than it is now receiving in state education grants. In recent years the legislature has placed a cap on the growth of the formula, which is designed to distribute tax dollars based on a school district's need. The cap has prevented increases in state education funding that East Hartford claims it is entitled to.

Since 1992, as enrollment in East Hartford schools has grown by a quarter, the number of poor students has grown by more than 40 percent. Meanwhile, the number of students who have gone to preschool has dropped sharply.

Towns like East Hartford have not been getting the resources. They are doing the best they can, but it is a symptom of a larger problem, said Robert DeCrescenzo, lawyer for plaintiffs in the Johnson vs. Rowland suit, which alleges that fast-changing communities like East Hartford are being shortchanged by the state.

There is a tremendous influx of new residents into East Hartford from Hartford, said DeCrescenzo, a former East Hartford mayor. East Hartford has to make up for any deficiencies that there may be in a child's prior education.