Do We Really Need to Test Special Needs Children More Than We Already Are?


Secretary of Education Arne Duncan thinks our schools are shortchanging students with special needs or disabilities. The truth is, he’s right — he’s just not right about how our schools are failing them.  

In a new rule issued by the Department of Education (DOE) on Aug. 21, 2015, we are informed that Secretary Duncan has amended the regulation governing Title I, Part A of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 to prohibit states from creating modified academic standards, and using alternative assessments based on those modified standards, for most children with identified special needs. In the past, two percent of all students were permitted to take modified tests that would count toward demonstrating proficiency; the new rule reduces the number of students taking modified tests from two percent to one. Now, only students with “the most significant cognitive disabilities “ are exempt.

In short, the DOE believes more children with special needs should be held to the same educational standards and take the same proficiency tests as their typically-abled peers. Why? Because unnamed “new research” has evidently convinced the Secretary and his team that “students with disabilities who struggle with reading and math can achieve at grade-level standards if provided appropriate instruction, services and supports.” (Emphasis mine.) Those last five words are a critical piece of this puzzle; I’ll return to them in a minute.

It’s not clear precisely where the “new research” Duncan’s team refers to comes from, but the language promoting the new paradigm seems to echo the principles of the One Year Plus Policy implemented in Baltimore in 2013 by Andrés Alonso, the former CEO of Baltimore schools who is now Professor of Practice at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The premise of that initiative hinged on the following idea:

The overwhelming majority of students with disabilities have the cognitive capacity to succeed at much higher levels than they do — if they are unshackled from low expectations and receive the specially designed instruction and other supports due them under federal law …Under the policy, students who are not severely cognitively disabled have a right to special education services that will enable them to meet state academic standards. (Emphasis mine.)

The goal of the Baltimore project was to add “one year plus” to a student’s achievement in a given school year. For example, a fifth-grader reading at a second-grade level would ideally receive services that would enable him to read at least at the third-grade level by the end of the year. It may be a commendable goal. However, two things are worth noting: 1) despite effort, I could not find any recent reports detailing the actual success rate of the program in Baltimore; and 2) there is nothing in the Baltimore model to suggest that students with IEPs should be taking the same standardized tests the DOE has prescribed for typically functioning kids.

Now to those five critical words: Far more important, in my book, than the Common Core curriculum and standardized testing the DOE is currently espousing are the concepts “appropriate instruction, services and supports” from Duncan’s proposal and “specially designed instruction and other supports due them under federal law” from the One Year Plus Policy. Duncan & Co. give a nod to those words but provide little substance for turning them into a reality; the idea that our schools even come close to providing “appropriate instruction, services, and supports” for special needs students is, of course, an absurd supposition. This is particularly true as schools nationwide have been forced to make budgetary cuts to special education over the past few years, reducing the often-limited services they were once able to provide. According to Disabilityscoop, in a 2013 survey of more than 1,000 special education teachers, administrators and other professionals across the country, “more than 80 percent reported that budget cuts have impacted the delivery of services for kids with disabilities.”

In the best of all worlds, exposure to “new research” on what special needs students require to succeed would inspire Duncan to focus on actually providing the appropriate instruction, services and supports these kids need to become successful in light of their individual disabilities. Instead, he and his team have concluded we should be focusing our energy on standardized tests — producing “newer and better” versions of them and foisting them on more students with disabilities than ever before.

It may be that Duncan’s heart is in the right place; perhaps (the thinking goes) if special educators are held accountable for teaching the same material to children with special needs that their peers are learning, and holding them to the same academic achievement standards, some of these students will not languish as a result of expectations far below what they can actually achieve. This is indeed a huge problem in special education. I have personally witnessed an entire school year and more lost to children with special needs who did not receive the proper instruction and support to meet their IEP goals.

But my years of experience in education tell me that putting more resources into teacher training to provide specialized and differentiated instruction would be of far more benefit to kids with special needs than expecting them to master grade-level material and pass standardized tests. And the services and supports that help these children learn — classroom aides, speech therapists, social workers, occupational and physical therapists and the newest technologies and methods of instruction — these are the things that should be added. Instead, we spend our time and money on testing and cut these vital services and supports.

Students who have IEPs are already constantly assessed to ensure their goals are being met. To make them sit for long standardized tests without appropriate accommodations is both unfair and wasteful of the instructional time these children desperately need. If you want to understand just how punitive and nonsensical this approach is, read the numerous comments left by parents and teachers at the end of a Disabilityscoop article detailing Duncan’s policy change. Their perspective is enlightening.

Parent commenters wrote about how forcing their children with IEPs to take and fail standardized tests accomplished nothing beyond making them feel even worse about themselves. They also pointed out that they preferred school systems to view their children with special needs as unique individuals, some of whom need to spend their time learning life and job skills so they can be productive members of society. They questioned whether any of the politicians and policy makers who crafted these expectations has a child with a disability. As one parent poignantly stated, “You can’t just teach a child out of a disability. My child has organic brain damage … you can’t just decide that holding her to a higher standard will magically fix her. I WISH it were that simple!!”

Special educators also questioned whether the rule-makers had spent any time in a classroom that included children with special needs or had backgrounds in special education. “Gee, all we need to do is raise the expectations and kids with intellectual disabilities or severe developmental delays will be able to do what everyone else can at the same level,” one educator noted sarcastically. “Have any of these people ever taught in special education?”

Another teacher shared how painful it was for her to administer standardized tests to the children in her special education class. Watching them struggle with questions they did not understand, questions designed to trick students or questions too abstract for children who can only think concretely was what another teacher called “a travesty for our students with disabilities — not enabling them, but disabling and labeling them even further than before. I wish that the Department of Education would focus more on actually educating our nation’s children, and less on making them all conform to ‘standardized’ norms.”

What the politicians who create education policy seem unwilling to understand is that many of these kids will never meet grade-level standards or pass the standardized tests used to measure their achievements. Most children who have special needs will not outgrow their disabilities. On the other hand, all children, regardless of ability, need to be taught to achieve at their own highest level possible. More focus on providing the resources needed to achieve this goal would help. More testing and one-size-fits-all standards will not.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the percentage of disabled children who were previously eligible for modified testing. Two percent of all students were once eligible for testing modifications, not two percent of disabled students.

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