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 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: Illinois
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.
, 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! Illinois
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
—was the subject of a Chicago Tribune editorial, "New Trier Gets an F." Why? New Winnetka, Illinois 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. Trier
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
) is being re-placed into general ed reading and language position for next year. Wilson
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.