Should students with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) — learning disabled as well as those with more severe disabilities — be included in testing, why or why not, and to what extent would testing be a benefit or obstacle to the child's learning and development?
Below are the responses from a parent, advocate, teacher, and a school administrator, in that order.
Jennifer Engle, parent and vice president of policy research, Institute of Higher Education Policy
As the parent of a first grader with Asperger's Syndrome, I would have been better served — and would have served my son, Jack, better — if I had learned to “presume competence” earlier in his development.
I learned the concept of presuming competence from other parents of autistic children, one of whom summarized it as “assuming your child is aware and able to understand, even though they may not show it in a way that you’re able to recognize or understand.” Jack’s preschool teachers were the ones who helped push him — and me — to presume competence rather than to overprotect, which is my instinct as his mother. They did this because they knew through past experience that effective interventions and accommodations will eventually result in students’ ability to show what they know in a way we adults can see.
Jack hasn’t taken any high-stakes tests yet. His performance on the standardized diagnostic tests shows he will likely need support — perhaps a lot of it — to demonstrate his skills within the scope of an assessment framework. But, for now, I’m not going to preemptively protect him from the challenges that testing might present so that we don’t inadvertently run the risk of not preparing him to meet that challenge.
If society agrees to test students in public schools, students with disabilities should be included, just as any other student.
Laura Kaloi, advocate and vice president, Washington Partners, LLC; previously director of public policy, National Center for Learning Disabilities
In a 2007 survey of students with disabilities, 88 percent said they “definitely expected to graduate with a regular diploma.” That’s terrific! As a society, we should support that goal to make it a reality. Unfortunately, we fall short: In 2011, fewer than 60 percent of students with disabilities graduated with a regular diploma, and in some states, it was as low as 23 percent.
Without a diploma, where do students with disabilities go? For most, they are unemployed, on welfare, or in prison. I believe that if we don’t assess students with disabilities alongside their peers (in reading/math as required by law), we also won’t teach them and hold them to the same standards as their peers.
If the idea comes as shocking that students with disabilities should be held to the same standards as general education students, consider this: More than 85 percent of the 6 million students eligible for special education in public school do not have “intellectual disabilities.” Intellectual disabilities are considered serious cognitive limitations in mental functioning. Those students with developmental disabilities (e.g. learning disabilities, speech/language, behavior, and attention disorders) should be given the general assessment. All states have alternative assessments for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities.
If we give too many students the alternate, we risk pushing them off the track toward a regular diploma as early as third grade. Schools, parents, and policymakers should work together so teachers have what they need to provide the intensive instruction and support that many students need. We know that when schools and districts focus on special education students using evidence-based practices (like positive behavior support), all students benefit. Most importantly, students achieve goals that lead to independent living, careers, college, and fulfilling their potential. If society agrees to test students in public schools, students with disabilities must be included, just as any other student.
Spending time on standards that will not support students with significant disabilities in becoming more independent is unproductive and takes away from vital learning time.
Sandra Carter, teacher, Fairfax County, Va., Public Schools
As a special education teacher for six years, I have worked with students with a variety of disabilities. For many students with mild to moderate disabilities, state tests can be passed with minor or even no accommodations. As both Ms. Engle and Ms. Kaloi pointed out, students benefit from parents and teachers holding them to high standards and will have more opportunities if they graduate with a regular diploma.
For students with moderate to severe disabilities, state testing can be a significant interruption to their daily education. During my time as a life skills instructor for students with moderate to severe disabilities, I saw the importance of the consistent reinforcement of daily living skills, such as cooking, personal hygiene, and communication. For example, last year, I worked with a third-grade student with autism who was intellectually disabled. This student was nonverbal and was often physically aggressive towards staff and other students. This student also exhibited bolting or fleeing behaviors, in which he would run away from staff. This student communicated his wants and needs through the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), but was not consistent with this system depending on his motivation or attentiveness. For a student such as this, every day that he is in school needs to be spent teaching him vital life skills that will assist him in his ability to communicate and keep him safe.
In April, I spent at least one hour each school day testing this student on standards, such as locating the state capital on a map. The student was frequently frustrated during and after the testing, which would result in him acting out and completing minimal work for the rest of the day. Spending time on standards that will not support this student in becoming more independent is unproductive and takes away from vital learning time. This time could be better spent teaching him to communicate his wants and needs and to act in a safe manner.
Holding students to high standards is extremely important in order to allow them to be successful members of our society. However, for students with significant disabilities, time can be better spent focusing on daily living skills.
The question isn’t whether or not to test students with disabilities; rather, it is how do we ensure assessments are worthy of students’ time?
Kerri A. Larkin, director of academic supports, Office of Specialized Education, D.C. Public Schools
Scholarly research of student achievement demonstrates the value of educating all students, including those with disabilities, in rigorous and responsive academic programs. In an increasingly data-driven education world, it follows that students participate in formative and summative assessments so that teaching interventions are better informed by evidence and applied with efficacy.
However, any singular test’s capacity to capture student progress accurately is a vexing challenge. The question is not whether students with disabilities should be included in standardized assessments; they should and are. This is schools’ hard-fought legal right. Rather, the question is how are we ensuring that these standardized assessments are worthy of our students’ time and measuring what they purport to measure?
States that have adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in reading and math are now able to offer all students rigorous learning experiences in a predictable scope and sequence. CCSS states are also responsible for implementing assessments aligned to the high standards, and this represents a shift in standardized assessment that recognizes a range of postsecondary transition options for students of varied abilities and interests. In this way, it is a marked improvement in the work of understanding student achievement across a continuum of ability levels.
Many students with disabilities are not performing on grade level across all subject areas as measured by standardized assessments. If we could scaffold (or provide phased supports) with the standardized assessments in the same way we scaffold instruction, we may be able to more accurately measure student achievement. A modified assessment would mirror how we teach grade-level content to students with disabilities, which is to scaffold curricular interventions and accommodate the child’s learning needs.
We know that each child has the capacity to achieve beyond our wildest expectation at her own time and pace. Improving assessment design to better complement the teaching process will result in better support of all children’s academic growth, including students with disabilities.