JIM LEHRER: Now testing students with disabilities under No Child Left Behind. John Merrow, the NewsHour special correspondent for education, reports.
WOMAN: I'm going to be...
JOHN MERROW: Tenth grader Matthew Petrone was born with Down's Syndrome. At his high school in Fairfield, Conn., he spends after half day in individualized instruction.
TEACHER: Step right up. We're going to make a nice semicircle here.
JOHN MERROW: But he also has some classes with his non-disabled peers.
WOMAN: Right hand, left hand, everybody. Yeah, beautiful.
JOHN MERROW: For Matthew, the measure of success in school has always been different.
CATHY BARBELLA PETRONE: I measure that he is part of the whole, that he is learning something, you know, helping him grow in some way grow in some way. I mean, I think I have a pretty -- I mean, I think I have a pretty realistic vision of his abilities.
WOMAN: And he came out.
JOHN MERROW: But earlier this year, Matthew's mother Kathy, learned that the measure of success for her son had changed. Under the federal education law known as No Child Left Behind, Matthew is now required to take the same tenth grade state test as everyone else.
CATHY BARBELLA PETRONE: First I thought there was an unfairness to this because he clearly was not at that level, and hadn't been exposed in math -- he is particularly deficient in math. But when I was told it had to happen, I said, "Okay, we'll just go with it."
JOHN MERROW: The law has also changed testing for students like Beth Dominello. Beth attends Conard High School in Westford, Conn.
BETH DOMINELLO: I have a math, I guess it would be called a disability. For example, I don't know my multiplication facts yet. My memory is really bad, it's really ... where if you told me seven times nine, I wouldn't know.
JOHN MERROW: Like Beth, most students who have learning disabilities are intelligent but struggle to keep up.
SAMANTHA RUSSELL: I have like slow processing. If everyone in the class gets it and the teacher is like, "all right, we're on a roll," teaching us new things. It's like, I don't understand the first thing he said.
ERIC CALLOWAY: Just all in all, a struggle just to like pay attention in any subject, be it math, social studies, whatever.
YANA RAZUMNAYA: The test, I take extra time, because I take a lot longer with the questions, like if someone, the other kids take a minute for a question, I need the extra minute to think it through.
JOHN MERROW: For students like the ones we met at Conard and for others like Matthew Petrone, expectations are higher than ever. No Child Left Behind requires them to reach the same level of proficiency as everyone else. And if their test scores fall short of the mark, their schools will be put on a warning list and ultimately could be shut down.
JOHN MERROW: How many schools of yours have been flagged?
DAVID SKLARZ: We've had all four of our secondary schools. All four blue ribbon award winning schools have now been flagged.
JOHN MERROW: Superintendent David Sklarz oversees the schools in West Hartford, including Conard High School. Two years ago Conard was named a national school of excellence. Now it is on a warning list because students with disabilities failed to measure up.
DAVID SKLARZ: Everybody is trying to back away from calling them failing schools but once you use the term first time, schools get tagged with that.
JOHN MERROW: Did the school change? Did you suddenly go from blue ribbon to lousy?
DAVID SKLARZ: (Laughs) No, we went from blue ribbon to even better. The rules changed and I think that that's what No Child Left Behind has done.
JOHN MERROW: What's happening in West Hartford is happening all over the country. Thousands of schools have been singled out because of the poor performance of students with disabilities. Some say that's exactly the wakeup call the system needed.
EUGENE HICKOK: Fact is, a group of students were being left behind. And now they know that and they will be fine. They're going to turn that around. But they needed to know.
JOHN MERROW: At the U.S. Department of Education, Deputy Secretary Eugene Hickok defends warn that schools with disabilities lag behind.
EUGENE HICKOK: Isn't a public school supposed to serve the entire public? I mean, to me the answer is yes.
REP. TED STRICKLAND: Give me a break. Let me tell you what they're doing over at the department of education. They're engaging in a lot of fanciful rhetoric. Fanciful rhetoric.
JOHN MERROW: Rep. Ted Strickland of Ohio voted for No Child Left Behind. But with 70 percent of students with disabilities failing in his own state, he's now come out hard against the law.
REP. TED STRICKLAND: Every child can learn, but not every child can learn at the same pace or reach the same level of achievement. That is the truth.
JOHN MERROW: Are you getting a lot of heat?
REP. TED STRICKLAND: Oh, sure. We expected it.
JOHN MERROW: Testing students like Matt Petrone is generating the most heat. No Child Left Behind does provide exemptions but only for students with the most severe disabilities. Thousands of students like Matt do not qualify for exemptions and therefore will be tested.
REP. TED STRICKLAND: It is unreasonable to take a child with significantly diminished cognitive abilities and expect them to achieve at an average level. It is not defensible.
JOHN MERROW: At first, Kathy Petrone also thought the idea of testing her son was indefensible. Then she changed her mind. To her, No Child Left Behind represents a turning point in education for students with disabilities. Only ten years ago, Connecticut routinely sent students like Matthew to separate schools.
CATHY BARBELLA PETRONE: I don't think in general, the educational system really did have that high expectations for Matthew. I mean, there was definitely issues of special education teachers saying, to me, you know, that your son is not going to read. He is only going to read sight words so we are not going to teach him this. And I was like, well how can you know that? How do you know that?
JOHN MERROW: Today, Matthew can read, not as well as his peers but better than most people expected.
CATHY BARBELLA PETRONE: He's kind of like a mirror in terms of the way you react towards him is kind of the way he'll act towards you. If you have low expectations or dismiss him, he'll basically act that way. I've seen this from when he was a child or if you meet him where he is and bring him up to a higher level, generally he will try to do that within his ability. The hope is that, you know, the law will help change expectations and change people's minds.
EUGENE HICKOK: Certainly there has never been tried before. We think this is the next logical step in making sure that special education is part of American public education.
JOHN MERROW: Secretary Hickok said No Child Left Behind is forcing schools to take seriously the business of educating kids with special needs.
REP. TED STRICKLAND: Well, there is some truth to that, but the way you correct that problem is not to create a system where students are set up to fail.
CATHY BARBELLA PETRONE: I do not really have expectation that he will pass, but the idea that everyone should have standards, that's a good idea.
This is not just about us. This is about everybody who is coming up behind us, and I hope, you know, that they'll get more opportunities.
JOHN MERROW: Any improvements No Child might bring to schools like Conard might arrive too late for today's students. Round two of state testing has already started.