Don’t visit the failures of high-stakes testing on special needs children

This week, Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan announced that the Department of Education will require states to make a comparison between students with special needs and their counterparts who have not been so-identified.

In the past, the United States Department of Education only asked that schools districts follow timelines and procedures by ensuring that correct paperwork was filed when it came to identifying and serving special needs children. Under those standards, most states and territories were in compliance. The new standards demand more.

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) jurisdictions fall in one of four categories Meets Requirements, Needs Assistance, Needs Intervention and Needs Substantial Intervention. The new framework means that only 18 states or territories received the label of Meets Requirements. North Carolina is in the Needs Assistance group.

The importance of ensuring that special needs children receive a quality education should, of course, go without saying. Because students may have special needs does not mean that they should be relegated to classrooms in which they are not educated with the same fervor as their non-special needs classmates. It’s good that Duncan seems to want to advance this cause.

Unfortunately, his plan includes a major flaw in that the measure of proficiency used for both exceptional children and students without special needs under the new standards is a standardized test. Simply put, it is hard to think of any recent educational policy that succeeded based on high-stakes testing. For instance:

  • No Child Left Behind failed because of the unrealistic proposition that there could be 100% proficiency demonstrated through testing.
  • Merit pay” for teachers is based on grades on standardized tests. There is little evidence, however, to show that teachers are more successful in raising test scores because they will receive extra pay.
  • Charter schools become less likely to be the “laboratories of innovation” they were supposed to be because their accountability is measured by the same high-stakes tests that traditional public schools are.
  • North Carolina’s Excellent Public Schools Act (ESPA), which passed in 2012, is rife with problems of high-stakes testing and over-testing – most notably the scheme to retain 3rd grade students who do not show reading proficiency on the End-of-Grade test. Indeed, the “Read to Achieve” section of the (ESPA) sent parents of 3rd graders and students themselves into a frenzy because students were being over-tested by mini-quizzes.

Fortunately, there are better models out there. Even under the flawed North Carolina law, the grades from the quizzes go into a portfolio that can show a child is proficient in reading if they do not pass the 3rd grade test. As noted previously in this space, a portfolio that includes a body of work over time would be the best way to assess and identify children for the services they need.

The students in North Carolina – both exceptional children and those without identified disabilities – should not be subjected to constant testing. All students should have a portfolio that will be evidence of proficiency with a body of work over time. While it is not only admirable but necessary that we investigate whether exceptional children are getting the same level of education as their classmates without identified disabilities, no child is done any favors by being subject to high-stakes standardized tests.

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