Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Isn't That Special?

The Miracle Workers, Part 2

Arne Duncan, the United States Secretary of Education (who BTW never taught a day in his life), insists that students in need of Special Ed services (with IEPs) would be able to pass their state’s standardized tests if they had “quality” instruction. He has recently made it a requirement that such students pass the tests at the same rate as regular ed students who do not require special instruction. In fact, my last blog post was about this subject. But I find it so unreal, that I wrote another one. I apologize for any repetition.

 Arne feels that showing progress on grade-level tests is so important that he will lessen the federal government’s watchdog role on IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) regulations which require timely identification, aren’t participation, and testing of potential special ed students. These regulations were put into effect because some school districts were making the students either wait too long for services or get railroaded through the testing process when other strategies may have worked. Those rules were needed then, and they are needed NOW. If school districts don’t have a watchdog making sure children are identified and serviced in an appropriate and timely fashion, look for the Special Ed services to lessen appreciably. It costs extra money to teach children with IEPs. In these days of draconian budget cuts in cash-strapped districts, the fewer Special Ed teachers a school district hires saves them thousands of dollars.

 Children are not identified as needing specialized instruction in a willy-nilly fashion. They are first given certain academic accommodations in their classroom by the teacher, with data collected as to the success of lack of it of the strategies.  After 4-6 weeks, the teacher determines, along with the Child Study Team, whether or not those strategies are working. If not working, other strategies are suggested and tried in the next time frame. There can be several 4-6 week sessions of identifying, accommodating, and re-evaluating before any determination is made that the child might need testing. If the child does not show enough progress, then the parent must be notified, questionnaires filled out, any physical reasons for the lack of progress eliminated, parent and teacher conferences held, and preliminary academic testing done. Then and only then, and only with the parent’s input and approval, can the child be tested by a school psychologist to determine the need for specialized instruction. In many school districts, a child must be at least 2 years below grade level to be considered for special ed testing.

 Despite the lengthy time period to determine if testing is needed, there are times in which the school does not meet the federally prescribed timelines set forth in the IDEA regulations. There were hefty consequences involved with not meeting prescribed deadlines concerning identification and re-evaluation of Special Ed students. That is the way it should be. Children who have special learning requirements should get all the services to which they are entitled in order to help them overcome their disability if possible, and to educate them to be contributing members of society as much as their disabilities allow. If the federal government doesn’t keep an eye on this, school districts are not going to be as diligent as they need to be in providing an appropriate education to our special children.

These days, most kids with IEPs are already mainstreamed into regular classes for the majority of their school day. Unless their disability is severe, the children are instructed on grade level subjects in their classroom with the special education teacher’s support either in-class or in a separate resource room for a prescribed period of time each day. In this manner, they are exposed to grade-appropriate concepts as well as instruction on their learning level, as per the IEP. As the years have gone by, the time spent on the Resource Room has been decreasing for most children. The exposure to grade-level material is important as many kids can grasp complicated concepts in Social Studies or Science instruction that doesn’t require their reading the textbooks. The instruction at the IEP level is usually far below grade level, meeting the students where they are to give them the strategies and specialized instruction needed to progress. Each child is different, needing varying levels of assistance and instruction. In my last 5th grade class, J. was a math whiz, but could only read on a second grade level. His pal, A., could read on a 4th grade level, but only did math at a first grade level, and could not write a coherent paragraph. D. was on the autism spectrum and was able to do the reading work but not the math and only on his terms, which changed from day to day. He required short sessions and frequent breaks, with little interaction with classmates. AJ could do grade level work but frustrated easily and required frequent teacher interaction, frequent breaks and reduced work loads to perform in class.

Unfortunately, the tests they were required to take are written at grade level and if they can’t read them, the students can’t even understand the questions! The accommodations allowed for most learning disabled students on the standardized tests are not very helpful – extra time and smaller classes for testing. A teacher is only allowed to read the math or science test to them if the student asks. The reading test, which most students in Special Ed can’t handle at grade level, cannot be read to them, only the directions. Consequently, students who have been identified as Special Ed and are already at least 2 years behind, can’t even begin to handle the reading portion of the test. Yet, according to the latest iteration of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) the teachers’ effectiveness are supposed to be evaluated on their students’ standardized test scores, not reaching their IEP goals.

I don’t need to tell you that not many Special Ed students pass the tests at the proficient level, although there are some exceptions. Everyone understands that most students being instructed below grade level as per their IEP, are not going to be able to handle the grade-level test. That doesn’t mean they aren’t making progress. Au contraire!

Some learning disabled children 3 levels behind can recoup 2 of those levels in a few years with a lot of hard work, support from home and the right approach to teaching. However, many students won’t be able to make a year’s progress in a year. Those with very low IQs, a child classified as what would have been referred to in the old days as Trainable Mentally Retarded, may take many years to make one year’s worth of progress. Children with pervasive developmental disabilities that make them as mature as a 4 year old will never be able to do close reading and algebra. Hopefully, they would be among the very few exempted from the testing, although not many are exempted. Even a child in Florida who was in hospice, on his deathbed, was expected to take the test. Talk about ridiculous.

But, then, how are you going to judge whether the Special Ed teacher is doing her job? The goals for each special ed child should be unique to that child. They should be goals that are attainable with work on the student’s and the teacher’s part. If a child needs many repetitions for a concept to sink in, it’s going to take longer to make a year’s worth of progress in reading or math, but they will make it. If the child requires special equipment, it may be easier to make the growth in class, but the test will still not allow all of the accommod-ations permitted in the classroom. Children with IQs of 47 are not going to be able to grasp the 5th grade concepts measured in the standardized tests. They can still improve and go forward in their learning nevertheless and the teacher and student should be recognized for the role they played in that student reaching their IEP goals.

The current requirements for most kids with IEPs to take their grade level tests is cruel and unusual punishment and results in some special ed children testing ALL day for 7 days in a row. No child should have to be accountable to test for 5 hours a day, especially those who are already identified as not being able to perform on grade level. It’s just wrong. And then to have their teachers’ “quality” depend on their score? Ridiculous!

If you agree with me, would you take time out of your busy day and email or use social media to pressure Arne Duncan to reassess his Special ed policies? Arne the Miracle Worker believes that special ed children will improve if only they are given harder tests. Show him his folly. None of us are Miracle Workers if those are the rules.

A Note to Arne Duncan from a Special Ed Teacher

The Stupidest Idea from the D.O.E.


Still learning!

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