Adversaries to ending high-stakes testing are not always misguided education reformers who worship big data, but other parents. Some of the loudest crusaders in favor of high-stakes testing are parents with students who have disabilities.
As Congress plans to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), some parents are speaking up against changes that will, in their words, create “lower expectations” for students with disabilities. They take the Every Child Ready for College or Career Act of 2015, to mean their child must be prepared to succeed by being offered the same opportunities to take high-stakes tests like all the other students, and they believe that should include few or no test alterations.
Alterations to the test involve providing a student with additional time, a change of setting, added assistive devices, and/or having the test read out loud to the student.
Michelle Diament recently wrote “Disability Advocates Sharply Critical of Plan to Ease Testing” in Disability Scoop. In a recent letter to Sen. Lamar Alexander, who chairs the ESEA committee, parents argued against raising the cap on alternative testing. Current rules are that only 1 percent of all students can be counted as “proficient” when taking a less-complex exam.
This letter was signed by parents from 25 disability advocacy groups as part of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities. HERE is a list of the organizations (many more), under the Consortium’s umbrella. Not all groups are on board for high-stakes testing of students with disabilities. A lot of parents want real services, reflected on authentic Individual Educational Plans (IEPs), that don’t only recite one-size-fits-all standards. Or, they want alterations to the testing.
Yet, there are powerful reasons behind why so many parents want their students to be involved in high-stakes testing, without alterations, and it might be easier to convince these parents otherwise if there is an attempt to see why high-stakes tests matter so much in their eyes.
First, the area of special education is full of tests—assessment can be a valuable tool to understand students and figure out how to better help them learn. There are tests to measure short-term and long-term progress, tests to observe behavior, I.Q. testing, speech and language testing, reading checklists and individual achievement tests, like the Woodcock-Johnson, and I could go on.
But high-stakes standardized testing is, of course, different, because all students take these tests—and that might make it seem falsely better than other testing to parents. Here are other reasons why parents of students with disabilities might like high-stakes testing:
- An alternative high school diploma, or no high school diploma, instead of a regular diploma, might be seen as failing. The diploma issue is very serious to parents. Passing the exam at the end of the year determines if the student gets a real diploma.
- Along with this, tests have, unfortunately, been promoted to mean success or failure when it comes to learning in school. Good results on a high-stakes test, or even access to the same test everyone else is taking, can seem to mean a child will blend into the world and get the same opportunities as a student without disabilities. This is a powerful incentive to parents to support high-stakes testing.
- For parents of gifted students, or twice exceptional students, high-stakes tests are often seen as another notch in their student’s belt to show intelligence. Many parents might see little else they can call real enrichment in their schools, so a score on a test can seem like a powerful ally.
- Passing high-stakes tests might seem to help alleviate one of the greatest fears any parent has—how a child will manage living once they leave home. Will they get into college? Will they get a job worthy of what they know? Will they be self-sufficient?
- An even larger, and perhaps the scariest question a parent might have, is, what will happen to my child after I am gone? How will my child survive? Will they be self-sufficient and lead a happy life? High-stakes testing could give a false sense of security.
- High-stakes testing comes along with the push to include students in regular education. Public school reforms, like the IDEA re-authorizations, have put the focus on the Least Restrictive Environment. High-stakes tests fit with the LRE.
- The passing of high-stakes tests is so important to some parents that they might reject more individualized assistance from a real special education teacher. They could see that kind of assistance as substandard, or they only want their child to get that help in the regular classroom.
- Parents might also place many expectations on the regular education teacher, who most likely has the burden of large class sizes, and might have lesser preparation in special education. Parents might see high-stakes testing as evidence the teacher succeeded or failed.
- If a child takes the high-stakes tests in the regular classroom, they might seem like they are able to drop special education labeling. This is enticing to parents.
To sum up, parents of special needs students are fighters, and they come from a long line of warriors who had to work extremely hard to get their children into school—to have them recognized. That is why the least restrictive environment appears so important along with the tests their child can take like everyone else.
This is exactly why Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s message is so troubling. It leads many parents to believe that the school should be responsible for correcting their child’s disabilities and that if they pass high-stakes testing it will make it so.
While there are students with disabilities who will do well on high-stakes testing, others won’t. And, with special education demonized so badly, many of these students will flounder around in school and never get the help they need.
Instead of focusing on high-stakes testing parents might be convinced that:
- There are many parents of students without disabilities who detest high-stakes testing. Pushing students with special needs to pass the test is not in their best interest anymore than any other student being pushed to pass high-stakes tests.
- Time might be better spent for parents (and students) by working closely with teachers to get individualized assistance and connections to those outside of school who can provide ongoing support.
- An IEP should reflect the real needs of a student and should come with extra help of professionals. An IEP, with input by many professionals, and parents, should be seen as the best accountability measure.
- Alterations on the test should not be seen as failing, but as helping a student succeed. All students learn tricks to pass tests. Why is this any different? If parents still want these tests, at the very least, they should allow for administrative alterations if they will be helpful.
- Pushing for changes in regulations concerning diplomas and high school graduation would be better than emphasizing high-stakes testing. If a student accomplishes goals on the IEP, they should get a regular diploma. It shouldn’t take an end of the year standardized test to distinguish a child as worthy to receive a diploma.
- For high school students, getting assistance from the school guidance counselor should involve discussion, and even surveys or job assessments, to learn about student interests. Counselors can be helpful linking students to outside work apprenticeships, or college. Many colleges and universities now have departments to assist students with disabilities.
- Associating with other parents and disability groups, and discussing the issue of high-stakes testing, can be helpful to share concerns and get advice and support.
- No high-stakes test should be used to lift some students with disabilities into the realm of what appears to be success, while forcing others to look like they lag behind. Parents should have special education options where their children are concerned.
- Parents need to know that teachers and the school do have a responsibility to the student with special needs to get it right. But providing a student with disabilities, gifted, or twice exceptional students the right kind of education is much more involved than getting them to pass a high-stakes test.
- A special education designation should not be seen as holding a student back, but of propelling them forward with the benefit of extra support.
Practically, we will always have tests. We need some measures to determine where student strengths lie, and also to better understand how to shore up weaknesses. Sooner or later students will face tests.
But most of the tests in K-12 today are not fair tests.
The high-stakes tests and standards of today have not been designed to help students whether they have disabilities or not. The tests today are being used to manipulate all students in order to fire teachers and close public schools.
By saying everyone can pass the same tests means that there will be a significant percentage of students who don’t pass the tests. Where will they go? What will happen to them? What will happen to their teachers and their schools?
I think by now we all know the answer to those questions.