By definition, standardized tests are designed in such a way that the questions, conditions for administering, scoring procedures, and interpretations are consistent and predetermined. Look carefully at this description: “consistent,” “predetermined.”
Having met Mr. Duncan some time ago, I am quite disturbed by his recent decision to expand the uses, interpretations, and accountability measures associated with the test scores of Students with Disabilities (not to be confused with the term, “SPED” students). The reality is that Students with Disabilities have long been exposed to the wonderful world of high-stakes testing. And do you know what they get labeled? We talk about these students as a “subgroup,” often “below average,” “below basic.” And do you know why? Because many of them enter the world of academic rigor “below the norm,” as measured and defined by psychological and psycho-educational evaluations, eligibility reports, and a host of other nationally normed evaluations.
When we engage in a conversation about the true academic abilities of Students with Disabilities, we have to consider more than their performance on random, out of context reading passages about “Astronauts!” on standardized tests. We have to consider the whole child. We have to consider the nature of these assessments, because paper and pencil tests and scantrons are not for everybody. But Duncan’s decision doesn’t seem to take that into account.
As Special Educators, we fight tirelessly. Do you know how long it takes to get the student who is three grade levels behind to a point where he is only one grade level behind? All we have is 180 days… 180 days to rewrite what this student has been thinking about himself for quite some time: “I’m below basic, I’m not good enough” … “inadequate” … “failure.”
I am not saying that Students with Disabilities should not be exposed to standardized testing. They have been for years. But what I am saying is that this “standard” decision needs to consider the very nature of an IEP: it’s an “Individualized Education Plan,” not a “Standardized Education Plan.”
How can we as Special Educators work year after year to help students master goals that are individualized only to turn around and say, “I know you can’t add two-digit numbers, but I want you to take this standardized test where half the questions involve adding with two-digit numbers so that I can see where you are.” Umm, what?
Look, after certain early developmental stages, students recognize and realize when they just can’t do something. And they know that their teacher knows… Think of what it does to the trust and understanding between a student and teacher when that student has to sit in front of that teacher and repeatedly fail standardized tests.
Mr. Duncan needs to be in the presence of Students with Disabilities who are assessed with DIBELS, for example, an early literacy assessment. These students’ IEPs may stipulate “extended time,” but DIBELS administration prohibits it. The students never get close to scoring “benchmark,” and they know it.
Mr. Duncan needs to have a conversation with the students who are overwhelmed on a standardized test of 40 questions. If these students’ IEPs mandate chunked and tiered assignments, how can we be surprised when they are unable to finish the test?
Mr. Duncan needs to spend time with the student who has limited working memory and processing speed, so that he knows how this student feels when trying to respond to even a single question in a “standard” way. How can we be surprised if the student quickly bubbles in answers, just hoping to get the process over with quickly?
Mr. Duncan needs to be in a room with a student who cries from anxiety during a high-stakes testing session because he is overwhelmed trying to decode all the words in non-fiction passage, just so that he can finally get to all the comprehension questions. True story.
Again, I am not saying that Students with Disabilities should not be exposed to standards-based measures, but I am opposed to Mr. Duncan’s one-size-fits-all approach. I think the addition of a portfolio assessment, for example, would give us a more robust view of what students are capable of doing.
The reality is that Students with Disabilities sometimes come into our schools with disadvantages that are beyond their control (i.e., Autism Spectrum Disorders). As Special Educators, it is our job to assure our students that growth is possible, growth matters. But this must be individualized growth, not standardized growth.
Alexis Mays-Fields is a, elementary school Special Education teacher in Washington D.C.