Opinion Piece: Standardized Testing in Schools Inadequately Accommodates Special Education

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) covers many federal education programs. The act, in 2001, was put forth to strengthen America’s educational system by requiring States to implement accountability systems covering all schools and all students. Although NCLB covers various education programs, the requirements for testing accountability and school progress undoubtedly receive the most attention. No Child Left Behind requires each state to test each student in reading and mathematics each year in grades 3 – 8 and once during high school. In science, states must test one time in grades 3-5, 6-8, and high school.

It seems improbable that any educator would argue the point that all our students should be proficient in grade-level math and reading. It is also plausible to trust that the school system should have expectations that adequate yearly progress will be made and that it should be measurable. In order for a school to have made adequate yearly progress, it must meet its target for student reading and math aptitude each year.

No Child Left Behind also requires that all teachers be highly qualified. This term refers to the fact that each teacher within the school should be fully certified by the state and that they must demonstrate their knowledge of the subject they teach through specific credentials or scores on tests. Though a teacher with Special Education certification may pass subject area Praxis exams, they are not considered “highly qualified” to teach those subjects at the high school level without taking a mandated number of college credits in that specific subject area. This is discriminatory as at the high school level the general education subject area teacher may teach the special education students with NO special education experience or course-work. Again, the emphasis is placed on achieving subject matter knowledge, not necessarily meeting the unique needs of the classified student.

As many of us in the special education arena would lament, there is a gap in reasoning here. At a time where more and more of our students are identified with disabilities such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, Behavioral Disabilities, and Specific Learning Disabilities, regular education teachers are not required to be highly qualified in areas such as “applied behavioral analysis” or “best practices in differential instruction.” However, special education teachers must be highly qualified in academic areas which mean they are tested on items such as the Asia/Pacific economic indicators. Far be it from offering ideas of isolationism, special educators are, however, focused on the child’s social, psychological and physiological development as a whole being. Their understanding of typical and atypical child development and instructional methodologies is one of the core foundations that have kept New Jersey’s reputation as the premiere state for educational practices in force. However, theories in economics are easily accessible from the internet.

Standards are necessary in education. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are what is expected. They are criteria, ideals, goals. They are the top rung. Academic content standards are statements about what students should know and be able to do upon finishing point of each grade level. There are simply too many. It has been the intent of the states’ consortiums to make the standards rigorous to “make” us Americans more competitive in the global market. They simply have not taken into consideration developmental markers. Our students meet these markers at a far different pace than their typically developing peers. That is explicitly why they have been classified in New Jersey for educational consideration under the law (N.J.A.C. 16A:14).

The intent is clear and admirable. The content standards are proclamations that should ensure teachers that their students have the skills and knowledge they need to be successful at each stage of learning. However, the vastness of them; the complex nature of them at every developmental learning stage; the disregard for different learning abilities (heavens – let’s not discriminate) makes monitoring of the yearly mastery of these standards horrendous for our special students with severe emotional disturbances. Our special education students, as part of their IEP, typically have some but not all of the grade level standards in their yearly plans. The question begs to be asked: Why would we presume to test them on a standardized test which measures vast numbers of markers to which they have not been introduced. The CCSS do not prescribe the curriculum, instructional practices, the materials or the texts teachers use to assist students through the learning process. However, our special students don’t necessarily (nor do they usually) make those gains within the one year as prescribed. For example, by the end of first grade students should be able “to write an opinion essay in which they introduce the topic or book name they are writing about, state an opinion, supply a reason for the opinion, and provide a sense of closure (CCSS W.1.1).” The adoption of this standard does not usurp the instruction of creatively teaching our students to write in complete sentences or discern the difference between fact and opinion. In fact, providing a focus for learning and a goal, however lofty, and every level throughout our students’ education is profoundly necessary.

The manner of assessment, by formative data, however is not promoting the equality that the state is longing for. High standards are now the calling card for college and careers; but once again, what sets the individual apart – the soft skills – is a summative measure. Our students’ ability to live and learn independently will not be measured by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. According to the Washington Post (June 27, 2014) “… Apparently, the [Department of Education] believes that more testing will help special education students achieve more in school. But since NCLB started, the standardized tests-based ‘accountability’ era more than a dozen years ago, there has been no evidence to show that standardized tests have improved student achievement…” If we are saying that the standards provide the goals and the curriculum provides the day to day objectives towards reaching those goals, with our students we are continually measuring their mastery of objectives towards goals which they may (or may not) meet. Why are we spending so much time testing the goals themselves? The training program needs to be evaluated and measured and monitored. The objectives measured and maintained and yes, the bar held high.

Today and tomorrow we only want success for our students. Given a dozen educators, parents, students, and politicians you may get quantitatively diverse ideas of how to achieve that for the child. Special education children, especially those with profound disabilities that leave them unable to access the curriculum readily deserve a quality look. The quick answer is alternate assessment. In reality, this occurs with little frequency. That same New Jersey law that provides for a free and appropriate education for our students mandates that “…most be tested in a standardized manner (N.J.A.C. 16A:14-14.1).” In a document that goes on for 165 pages to explain the needs for adjustments and adaptations in the world of special education, with individualized educational plans and specialized accommodations and modifications, standardized testing is something that serves us poorly.

Vicki Ofmani, MEd, LDT-C, is Supervisor/SLE Coordinator at The Forum School, located in Waldwick, NJ. She is also a Member of the Board of Trustees for The Daniel Jordan Fiddle Foundation in Ridgewood, NJ. For more information, please visit www.theforumschool.com or email vicki.ofmani@theforumschool.com.

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