Saturday, July 30, 2011

Restrictive and Inappropriate: How High-stakes Testing & NCLB Abuse Sped Students

Friends of the the SOS March & National Call to Action blogged all this month about why they were marching in DC July 30th. And, today, we marched! I never wrote a post of my own, but this guest post by Chaya Rubenstein provides at least one reason for why I marched today and why I will continue to fight for real reform: federal education policy under Presidents W. Bush and now Obama such as NCLB and RTTT, and particularly high-stakes testing, are undermining quality public education. The effects of these policies on special education students are especially harmful and the special ed community has been especially under-represented (I, for example, have not blogged much at all about sped issues). 

Chaya is a retired special education teacher, and is a vice president of Professionals in Learning Disabilities & Special Education. In 1985, she was named Blue Island Teacher of the Year and, as such, was nominated for Illinois Teacher of the Year.  In 1999, her principal nominated her for a Golden Apple Award. Chaya is also a friend of the SOS March. Here's her post:

Not so long ago, teacher Paul Karrer's letter to President Obama in Education Week brought me to tears. Now here's another situation that brings me to tears: special education students who are forced to take high-stakes tests.

In Illinois, these tests are known as the ISATs. At the annual dinner for Professionals in Learning Disabilities & Special Ed., a colleague told me about a student in a self-contained classroom who eats paper. During the high-stakes testing of this past March, this student ate his test. In my experience, students hid under their desks, shaking, refusing to take the test. One student threw his three pointy and perfectly sharpened #3 pencils into the ceiling while loudly proclaiming, "Not taking this, not taking this, not taking this. . ." thus disrupting the other five students in the room, who then lost their concentration. The principal had to be buzzed to come and remove him, but brought him back to the room ten minutes later, saying he was now ready to test; the student repeated his previous behavior. Yet another student returned home from a vacation at 12:00 AM the morning of the test, not having gone to bed until 1:00 am. Her parents were called and yes, they insisted that she take the test; she fell asleep after the first fifteen minutes and continued to sleep throughout the rest of the testing that morning. Another student used her highlighting pen to fill in the bubbles on the answer sheet (remember, #3 pencils only!). One of MANY students with Attention Hyperactivity Disorder NOT on medication got up and wandered about the room during testing. These are but a few--I can assure you, there is no end to these stories!

The misery caused to many sped students (not to mention the loss of REAL education time spent otherwise on test preparation) aside, because they may comprise a subgroup large enough to be counted in the testing results, an entire school may not make average yearly progress. One of the most exceptional and high-performing schools in the country--New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois—was the subject of a Chicago Tribune editorial, "New Trier Gets an F." Why? New Trier did not make AYP this year because the sped subgroup had only 68% (the Math & Reading averaged together) “meet” or “exceed.” (& that percentage is undoubtedly one of the highest in the country for SpEd.—but not, according to the Feds—high enough.) At the middle school where I taught, our sped subgroup made AYP only one year out of six, but that year the English Language Learners (ELL) subgroup did not make it. The Illinois State Board of Education had been told to come up with a better form of testing within a certain time period, which it did not. Therefore, a month before the ISATs, though the ELL teachers had been given an alternative test—the Logaramos, I think—all of the bi-lingual teachers were told that they had to give their students the ISATs! All of us had been giving these tests for years, and we had begun prepping in September, using books and materials we'd already had. We, as Resource Teachers, scrambled, trying to help the teachers prep their students as best they could under the circumstances.

The result? A restructuring of our school, at a great loss to our children--a large number of teachers were sent to other schools, for example: the very dedicated and experienced art teacher (when told she was leaving, the kids asked, "What does art have to do with test scores?"); an extremely talented math teacher who had won a teaching award--sent to the Alternative Learning Center (and his kids had consistently earned the highest ISAT Math scores of the three grade levels!); the sixth grade social studies teacher who was sent to second grade (she tried, but she has been having a very difficult year, as she was a middle school expert and had never taught in the lower grades--now her job is in jeopardy); and, the learning disabilities resource teacher (whose students consistently scored well on the tests) was sent to be a fourth grade teacher. Feeling she could not successfully teach in that capacity, she resigned.

So, I ask: what was the gain here? The students lost many, many experienced, well-liked, respected and highly caring teachers because a small number of students--who shouldn't even be tested on these particular tests in the first place--did not make the grade. Many people do not understand that the alternative assessments are only given to those students who are “developmentally disabled” (the old classification was “mentally retarded”). Therefore, even if students have severe learning disabilities with social/emotional disorders, even if students have Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity (even just Attention Deficit Disorder is debilitating) and are not on medication (tending to be the case in low-income areas, where test scores tend to be lower), if the subgroup is large enough, test scores are counted, and the entire faculty is held accountable for them. (Our wonderful principal lost his position, as well.) Teachers who stayed on at the school do not think that the sped population's test scores improved this past year. (It has been said that the school did not pass this year, as well.) In fact, one of the sped teachers who was hired to replace another was recently fired for continual verbal abuse and for pushing a student. The learning disabilities resource teacher hired to replace another (this teacher not trained in specialized reading programs such as Wilson) is being re-placed into general ed reading and language position for next year.

But here is an even worse scenario: the new measure for determining learning disabilities (and it is supposed to be only for diagnosing learning disabilities, not for other learning problems) is now something called Response to Intervention (RTI), an agonizingly slow and often questionable (districts all over the country are utilizing/interpreting it in may different ways, with various, lengthy timetables) method. RTI is being used as an excuse to keep students from receiving sped services, thus accomplishing two things often beneficial to a school district, but not to the children: 1) the sped subgroup can be kept under the number that would make it eligible to be counted in the test results, and 2) school districts save money by not having to service these students.

Besides Mr. Karrer’s letter, Arne Duncan's recent dialogue in April with the Council for Exceptional Children, prompted me to write this. In it, Secretary Duncan acknowledges that sped students are testing behind the general population, and yet, even though the kids are not reading/working at grade level, they still need to be involved in this testing and must be tested at grade level in order to “raise the bar” and have high expectations set for them, so that they will be able go to college! Having been a sped teacher for thirty-five years, every dedicated teacher I know has the highest expectations for his/her students. I, for one, expected that ALL my students could succeed in college (I taught LD resource) and always told these middle school students--as well as their parents--to start researching colleges.

Yet, I ask, what does that have to do with this ludicrous testing program?! How does this help them go to college? A highly touted school here in Chicago, Urban Prep, had 100% of its students accepted to college; however, the school's test scores have been poor: the school has not made A.Y.P. It serves as proof that students can and will do well in their studies, even if they don't necessarily test well.

Finally, some time ago, I had read in the National Education Association Advocate about a group of special education teachers who did not administer state tests to their students as it was believed (as per school board policy &/or by union contract) that parents could refuse to have their children tested. As the teachers were charged to do so, they asked all the parents if they wanted their children tested. The parents said no, and the testing day(s) came and went with the teachers actually teaching and not testing their classes. Subsequently, the teachers were reprimanded for this, having letters placed into their files, along with other sanctions.

In conclusion, it is my hope and the hope of my colleagues that the mandated testing of all sped students will stop this year. Some sped students should be tested, of course, but that needs to be determined on a case-by-case basis (to be written into the I.E.P.) by teachers and parents. This is but part of a greater solution to repair our federal government’s damaging, restrictive, and inappropriate education policies, but it will help enormously. Our students deserve no less.


  1. Thank you for sharing your compelling experiences. They add even more examples to the mountains of reasons to end high-stakes testing. I hope we, as teachers, parents, students, and community stakeholders can eventually get the message through to those in power.

  2. Thank you for saying eloquently what most teachers feel deeply. I wonder how my autistic second grade student did this year on his state testing. Third grade is the make it or break it year. If he didn't pass the reading test, he won't pass the grade. He is extremely bright, but can't articulate ideas well. Nor can he sit long enough to take a test. God help him get through public school...

  3. Dear Ms. Levy,

    I'm a bilingual 1st grade teacher, and I teach most of the day in Spanish. In spite of this, every year I'm compelled to give my students a test IN ENGLISH, which achieves nothing more than frustrating them and me! Honestly, I think all of this ridiculous testing needs to STOP. I'm neither an idealist, nor do I hearken back to any "good ol' days," but when I was in school, some 30+ years ago, it wasn't necessary to do all this testing to know who was or was not "doing well." Teaching is the be all and end all. I do not suggest in any way, shape or form that testing should NOT be done, nor am I saying teachers should not be held accountable. However, before all of that is done, we need to acknowledge that the system is "broke," and NCLB is NOT the fix!

  4. Right on! While it is a loss to her students that Chaya is retired, her advocacy work on behalf of students and teachers nationwide will be an equal benefit.

  5. I am also a sped teacher and several years ago I had a student who attempted suicide and was in the hospital during testing. Because we have to test 100% of our kids, this poor child had to take the test while he was hospitalized. Another year a school in my area didn't make AYP because they didn't test a student who was terminally ill.

    This is just insane. Thanks for your blog. We need to keep telling our stories.

  6. Thanks so much to all of you who commented. All of our experiences have been heartbreaking, & what we must do next is to tell all these stories--100s & 1,000s of them from all over the U.S. Because--the D.O.E. does not know or, if it does, the message has been lost. The O.S.E.P.(Office of Special Ed. Programs--Dr.Melody Musgrove, Director)SHOULD know this, & be pressing D.O.E. to STOP the testing as we know it (&,as one of the comments stated,"I do not suggest that testing not be done,"--testing has been quite appropriate for our twice exceptional: gifted/L.D. population {they have taken tests comfortably & have scored in the "exceed" range})--an individual student's I.E.P. might have a NO STATE TESTING box checked off, with that student being involved in the Individual Alternative Assessment. Rather than just exempting developmentally disabled students as it's now done, the decision to test would be made by each student's I.E.P. Team (parents included!!!).
    Therefore, our Job One is clear--we must do what we did in my former district to hold off total inclusion: when an overzealous SpEd.Director told all the administrators & teachers in our district that "total inclusion" was mandated in Illinois (never was,never will be!),we had to file a grievance (this IS where the union comes in, & it was for the good of the students!) based on a violation of our contract, i.e., change in classroom teacher's job description.This involved having ALL of the teachers in the district write a letter RE: their experiences with struggling students who had not been evaluated, & how these students had been hurt by not receiving help &, in turn, had hurt the other 24 students in the class by being disruptive.
    The letter-writing campaign(almost 100% of the teachers wrote a story)yielded a 200-page document, which wound up in the hands of a furious school board (the SpecialEd Director refused to honor our request to cease & desist, & the superintendent backed her; therefore, the grievance carried to the top of the chain-of-command).Once having read these horror stories, the Board ordered the SpEd Director to withdraw all total inclusion implementation.
    Since that success, I firmly believe in the letter-writing campaign: write our stories, then submit them. Make the O.S.E.P.aware to bring the D.O.E. into action. Send your stories here; send them to me. I will be happy to help in the compilation & presentation. I strongly believe that in so doing, we will provide the missing piece to the puzzle, that we can then get to the root of the testing dilemma. We have four more stories here--let's have four hundred, four thousand, four hundred thousand, four million! We CAN do this!

  7. These tests are terribly stressful for my special education students. Not all the students I teach have learning difficulties, but many do. My twice special students (gifted and special education) struggle with emotional regulation; impulse control; motor and executive functioning; and mental health even if they ultimately score well on the tests.

    Here’s a description of a meltdown that happened year before last. “T,” a 4th grade student with severe anxiety, sensory processing, and autism spectrum disorder, was taking his state math test. T asked me if there were 16 ounces in a pound. I confirm this. The question involves a litter of puppies and a baffling need to convert their accumulated weight to ounces from pounds. T quickly solved the question, but he thinks he did it wrong. He thinks there might be 18 ounces in a pound. I tell him his answer was correct, and move on to the next question. He found a new worry. He thought he needed to write the answer, draw the answer, and put it in a number sentence. He was not sure how to do all those things. I explain he just needs to choose one and do it. After a few minutes his hand is up and I see that he has erased his answer. He’s going into an autistic meltdown of arms flapping, feet kicking, and crying, because he is not sure if he got the question right. The other kids are distracted and annoyed at the commotion he is creating. I get him to use his calming strategies (part of his IEP) to redo the question and move on until the next question that he was unsure about and it the meltdown started again.


  8. Yes, some of the twice exceptional kids do that--they are so worried about answering correctly, & they over-analyze their answers, especially on the extended-response math! I guess some of the other situations that have occurred have been so averse (like the kids hiding under
    their desks, crying)that I failed to mention this other common situation.(&--oh,well--it doesn't REALLY matter, does it, because THAT student's score EXCEEDED the state average!)

  9. The worst part of it is this: if the child is SpEd, a minority, and low income; you get three hits against you if the student fails. :-/

  10. YES! & THAT'S why this testing MUST STOP!!!
    &--we can't say this enough--it's hurting EVERY child in the school, not just our students.
    Thank you for your comments, & PLEASE KEEP THEM COMING! I am compiling them but, just as the S.O.S. March (wasn't taken seriously because ONLY 5,000 came out?!), we need THOUSANDS, HUNDREDS of THOUSANDS of comments like yours to send in to O.S.E.P. to make noise & be heard! (Unfortunately, the hospital one would not be enough, & that post really made me cry.)
    Thanks for all your responses--get EVERYONE you know to write!--Chaya

  11. Rachel suggested to me that I post my e-mail for you to write, so here it is:

    If you'd prefer to send me a letter, that would even be better, as it's sometimes difficult to read my e-mail! Send to:
    P.O. Box 89
    Winnetka, IL 60093

    THANK YOU! Let's make the STOP TESTING OUR
    SPED. KIDS a reality! (The good news is that the D.O.E. is going to start issuing blanket waivers, as the higher passing %ages are not being met--by ANY schools/districts--& too many are failing!)However, even this is not stopping the testing!

  12. Chaya-would LOVE for more comments on the horrific damage that RtI is doing to our kids that desperately need services but instead sit-sometimes for a few years-waiting for the help they need-and all we can do is "wait"- or so we are told. It is pathetic. And there is really no one around to help the gen ed teachers who really have no training to assist these students, implement and strategies or with data collection. And why is it that some disabilities need not go through the RtI process? Is it because we have so many sped experts on very complex developmental disabilities on a gen ed campus that can distinguish the difference??? We have had so many kids been given inappropriate eligibilities because of ignorance.

    Also, for the students who are, as you said, so-called "developmentally delayed," their alternative assessments are a total joke. They are not standardized although the states claim they are, we do not get the same standards under which to test that our gen ed kids get-i.e. quiet, distraction free environments to test them, we do not get subs for our classes when we are testing them but only teachers can administer the tests-so the they have to be tested individually so the teacher must stop teaching their class-so what about the other students while the teacher is testing??? our schools are certainly not "locked down" during our testing like the state standardized test, we have to prepare all of the materials for the assessment, not all of the materials come with the assessment itself when it is delivered to our school, (I could go on and on as you could imagine) etc. But now, out grades on the alternative assessment go towards the school's AYP, so it should be taken more seriously, but once again, we are put on the back burner, just like everything else.