I have been in Special Education for 10 years. This has been enough time for me to see many changes in education particularly in how special education students are served. The push has been for a long time to include special education students in the regular setting to expose them to the standard course of study as much as possible. The premise behind this movement is that all students, regardless of their learning differences, have a right to the same curriculum standards. Students with learning disabilities often times have average to above average cognitive abilities, but due to a glitch in the way they learn things, perform academically well below what would be expected given their ability level. Special education, just by its pure existence recognizes and identifies that all students do not learn the same and that some students struggle academically and do not perform as well as their same age peers. Fortunately, with the support of special education and necessary accommodations, learning disabled students can experience success in general education classes and make appropriate yearly progress.
Frustration for me comes in the way we measure what learning disabled students are able to do academically. Before the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation, many special education students would have been excluded from standardized testing, or held to separate or lower standards. Currently, NCLB states that ALL students are required to take an end of grade/course test, including those students with special needs. By 2014, the legislation states that all students must test ON grade level in reading and math.
I just do not believe this is a realistic expectation. Essentially, we put struggling students through an extensive testing process, determine their intellectual and academic disabilities, document their legitimate weaknesses, classify them with “labels” that support that they perform below their same age peers, provide them with necessary accommodations to help them experience success in the classroom, use multiple teaching strategies to meet their diverse needs, allow them to demonstrate what they have learned in a variety of ways, and then we get to the end of the semester or school year and everything they have been accustomed to all year is thrown by the wayside. One size now fits all. Despite individual learning strengths and weakness, all students are expected to sit for hours and take the exact same test and pass by the same measuring stick!
This is frustrating beyond belief to the child who has learning or behavior difficulties. I think it is fair for me to say that most of my high school students are very successful in the classroom and pass teacher standards with no problems. Most often it is due to the fact that they work hard, do their class work and homework, do test corrections, turn in required projects, participate in class discussions and group activities, and genuinely want to do a good job. These students ARE making progress yearly and successfully demonstrate this progress in a variety of non-traditional ways. These are reasons why it is so disheartening and frustrating for me to see these students subjected year after year to the state final exams, not once, but multiple times before they can be “waived” and promoted to the next grade level. This has been the biggest morale buster and confidence destroyer ever for my students. Even though I have witnessed this for 10 years now, I still can’t imagine what it must truly be like for these students and their self esteem. Students know who passes these tests and who do not. Year after year they see the same kids leave the room for remediation or for retesting and children are not always kind.
Beginning this school year, students with more severe disabilities(intellectual abilities 70 and below) are now being “included” in the general education classes and required to take high school Biology, Algebra 1 and English 1. They are further required to take the respective EOC’s, although they are not required to pass them to get credit for the course. They are just required to take it, multiple times, if they don’t pass the first time. I am having difficulties with this one. This population has been taught for years at their ability level and their curriculum has focused on preparing them to live independently in the future by teaching them every day living and job skills. They have not been exposed to the current rigorous curriculum standards, so in one respect we are definitely setting them up to fail. They do not have the foundation or pre-requisite skills to be successful in these courses. This is taking place across all grade-levels, beginning at the elementary level. These students’ scores are being computed in with the entire school’s overall proficiency scores, although they are not being included in the school’s growth scores.
Personally, I believe there has got to be a better, more equitable way to demonstrate academic progress, growth and overall achievement levels of students. Once we have determined and documented that a student has “special needs”, we should be allowed to perform a baseline assessment for each student at the beginning of each school year and then give end of course/year assessments on individual ability levels to determine adequate progress. The assessments would be a compilation or portfolio that would include various methods that would paint a total picture of what the student has accomplished in a given amount of time. A progress rubric could be developed for each age or grade level and then students would move up based on their own individual progress. This would have to be less frustrating for the student and the teacher than to watch a student try to read, comprehend and answer questions on a test that is several grade levels above their independent reading level.