Floyd County in Eastern Kentucky has been held up as an inspiring turnaround story and a model for educating low-income rural youngsters.
Now a state investigation reveals that part of that shining image was likely achieved by wrongly placing children in special education to boost standardized test scores.
How demoralizing that must be for educators who have worked hard to do right by their students in a county where more than 40 percent of children live in poverty.
The “systemic” violations identified by the state should not discredit the improved teaching and real gains in learning in Floyd County’s schools.
At the same time, state and local officials must demand a quick cleanup of the problems that were discovered in response to complaints from parents and agencies. The responsible educators should be held accountable.
The state audit, which focused on compliance with the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and related state regulations, identified serious concerns. Dated June 27, the findings became public Aug. 29 in the Floyd County Chronicle, which obtained the report through the Kentucky Open Records Act.
The Chronicle’s examination of state data also revealed that Floyd County’s test scores, which rose to among Kentucky’s highest, increased in tandem with the number of students identified as special needs. The number of special needs students more than doubled from 514 in 2011-12 to 1,271 in 2016-17. In Floyd County, 22.5 percent of students are now in special education compared with 13.7 statewide.
The district was under state control for years because of gross mismanagement and low achievement. The turnaround attracted the attention of researchers and luminaries such as Bill Gates, who visited in 2016.
When state investigators returned early this year they concluded: “Assessment tools and strategies applied by the district were not used for determining the educational needs of the students. Rather, special education was sought as a substitute for appropriate instruction so that accommodations could be used during statewide testing in the district.”
The Chronicle reports that those accommodations can include extra time, having questions read to the student and having an adult “scribe” fill in the answers. The audit said one school referred 50 students to special education in time for statewide testing.
The state is investigating possible violations of testing rules for referral to a review board.
State investigators also found instances when special needs students lacked a certified teacher. Those findings have been turned over to the Office of Education Accountability.
Floyd County Superintendent Danny Adkins, formerly an administrator in the Pike County schools, has been on the job only since May. He has named a new special education director, Larry Bagby, who has experience as a principal and special education teacher, and has added a special education consultant. They will participate in all special education placements, Adkins said.
The district’s corrective action plan is awaiting state approval. Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis should keep the pressure on to provide all kids with the educations to which they are entitled by law.
Poverty deprives so many Kentucky youngsters of opportunities, the last thing they need is to be cheated by their schools.