Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Standardized Tests and Students With Disabilities

This is a touchy subject. Civil rights and disability rights groups would have us all believe that by not having our kids tested, their rights would be violated. I understand the history. I get it. As a parent, I’m telling you it’s wrong. That thinking, as well meaning as it may have been at the beginning of No Child Left Behind (I'm being generous), is simply wrong.

For many with IEPs, who are not educationally at/near grade level, standardized tests are completely inappropriate. The scores do not reflect what a student has learned, nor do they demonstrate actual growth and achievement during any given year. And, really, when you get right down to it, the Federal cap of 1% being allowed to be eligible for alternate assessment completely contradicts the purpose of an Individual Education Plan. Here's why...

Standardized tests do not provide meaningful feedback. A designation of "not proficient at grade level" tells the parents and teachers nothing about the student they don't already know. Maybe more basic than this, why would you give a test on something the student hasn't learned?

Since no one gets to see the questions or answers on these standardized tests, how can anyone (not just special ed) determine any specific strengths or weaknesses? The answer, of course, is they can’t.

Accommodations tend to be more time, separate testing environment from general ed classmates, and frequent breaks – none are actually helpful if the student is not working at grade level.

Accommodations, like reading passages to the student, may be moderately helpful, BUT, then it may mask reading level issues – we experienced this problem with 7th grade NJASK. Oh, look! Her ELA score is so much higher than last year! (Nevermind, it still wasn’t “proficient.”) Funny thing about that -- it wasn’t that she couldn’t comprehend, it’s that she couldn’t really read.

We know these scores, regardless of arguable validity, are used to withhold services. A student does moderately well, but maybe not quite "proficient," or has an unexplained jump in scores from one year to next (see above) and that not-quite-proficient score is used as an excuse to deny evaluation for classification, or to directly deny a requested service (like reading – Orton Gillingham, Wilson, etc.), because that score was "good enough."

For the parent who is looking for an evaluation, the story goes like this. They ask for a meeting. The child study team brings out the test score and tells the parents, "Look how close he is to proficient! Johnny doesn't need an evaluation. He's doing so well, he's so happy, and gosh, he just has the nicest smile. We'll give him Basic Skills Instruction (BSI)." The parents, completely not savvy, think "Oh, ok. Johnny will be getting help. Thank goodness they want to help."

What's so insidious about that scenario is the student doesn't get a proper evaluation. The standardized test score doesn't actually tell anyone anything useful. And, BSI is a general education placement, not special education. We know that teaching to the test in that smaller environment does work to raise test scores. My sparkly district has been spending at twice the rate of our neighbors doing exactly that for years. The student does not get what they actually need and somewhere down the line, the parents figure it out, are mad as hell, and they finally (hopefully) get the evaluation they should have gotten to begin with.

How do we fix this? Because, I can't stress enough that assessment in general is not the issue. Of course, we need to know how our kids are doing. Standardized tests, like PARCC and SBAC, aren’t going to inform us of what we need to know. Personally, I prefer the use of portfolios. I would much rather have my daughter’s progress monitored by her teachers throughout the school year – using both the teachers’ own assessments and projects. I would rather she demonstrate what she CAN DO, rather than just failing a test that is inappropriate for her to begin with. Why is this such a difficult concept?

This isn’t rocket science. Really.

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