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'Getting there' outweighs honor

WASHINGTON -- For too many of us, getting there is the only thing that matters. How we get there is just a minor detail.

A House committee is looking into allegations that several states raised their scores on recent National Assessment of Educational Progress tests by excluding slow learners, learning disabled and other special-needs children from the testing.Getting there -- being able to post improved test scores -- apparently became so important that officials in more than a dozen states took the dishonorable shortcut.

The problem, aside from the merely ethical one, is that officials in these states have no way of knowing whether some of their recent educational innovations are paying off. Maryland and Kentucky, for instance, have been working hard at boosting school performance, and the National Assessment scores indicated both had made large gains. But because they excluded large numbers of children who were expected to test poorly, they can never be sure which innovations were successful.

In the case of some parents in Greenwich, Conn., getting there takes an even more cynical route. ABC's Michele Norris was curious as to why that affluent community had one of the nation's highest percentages of learning-disabled students. Thirty percent of the town's high school students are in special-ed classes -- twice the national average. Is it something in the water?

No, it's something in the rules. Learning disabled students are eligible for one-to-one tutoring, untimed tests and additional time to complete assignments. They also get to take untimed SATs. Greenwich's teenagers may not be more academically challenged than others elsewhere, but their parents, understanding how useful improved grade-point averages and SATs can be for college applications, have figured out how to get there. If that means taking the back road, so be it.

Or, maybe you've heard of the "crazy checks." Those are the payments made under the Social Security system's Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program for disabled children who fail to exhibit "age-appropriate behavior."

It's easy enough to see how parents of children with special adjustment and socialization problems could use the extra financial assistance. But for a number of parents, it isn't the extra help for troubled children that constitutes the "getting there." It is the money itself.

One result is that parents in some parts of the country are actually coaching their children to behave in age-inappropriate ways: to fail simple tests, to wet their clothes, to fight, to show signs of loss of control -- all to qualify them for the "crazy checks."

Teachers in the Mississippi Delta (besides Mississippi, Louisiana, Illinois, Ohio and Florida have been among the "crazy checks" leaders) tell of being asked by parents to sign papers attesting to their children's academic failure or their "off" behavior. Doctors reportedly have been cajoled into certifying questionable or nonexistent disorders.

The payments can easily come to a few hundred dollars a month. In some cases I've been told about, retroactive payments have produced single checks amounting to scores of thousands of dollars.

Social Security has been trying to fix the system to prevent this sort of abuse, but it's not an easy matter. Once cynics learn to manipulate the rules for their own getting-there purposes, tough-minded reform is more likely to hurt the innocent than punish the guilty. The parents who really need the special help -- and who would use it in their children's academic interest -- may wind up missing out altogether, while the cynics learn to manipulate the new rules.

Rules are no substitute for personal honor. As long as there are rewards to be had by bending the rules -- whether excluding "slow" children from testing, creating learning disabilities or coaching inappropriate behavior -- there will be the temptation to bend them. When "getting there" matters more than how we get there, who has time for personal honor?

And if troubled schools go without substantive improvement, if normal children later pay a price for inappropriate labeling, or if truly needy children go without the help they deserve -- why, those are just minor details.

Washington Post Writers Group