Special Education Reforms: What will New Test Accountability Mean?
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Special Education Reforms: What will New Test Accountability Mean?

The following is a special needs program update from Life Development Institute. You may also click here to read the original article on the program’s website.

special education reform

The US Department of Education is publicly declaring its intention to move away from assessing special education state quality indicators/compliance for students/schools based on a system of achieving and maintaining education and civil rights protections to one based on test score achievement. Secretary Arne Duncan calls it the result-driven accountability a “shift away from complacency.” The comments made by the Secretary and other state directors of special education single out children with specific learning and communication disorders as benefitting from the new approach. But what are these statements based upon, and how will they really improve education outcomes?

Parents tend to view their children’s academic future through the lens of the promise contained in the original special education law known as P.L. 94-142, and later as IDEA. However, as good as it was meant to be, there has never been a full federal commitment to providing states and school districts with 40% funding of the costs. The highest level of federal support through the Congress topped out at about 18% of the costs to provide. It has fallen to states and local school districts to make up the rest, in order to comply with the costs to provide the necessary services and supports in public or private school settings. The United States is the only country to develop,implement and generally enforce these protections and services for students with special education needs.

Since passage in 1975, every state has been waiting for both fiscal and regulatory relief from the unfunded mandates built into the system. The protections and safeguards which have made it possible for parents to obtain a free, appropriate public education for their children have generally been constantly under attack as unfair burdens. Despite the political affiliation of any particular Presidential administration running the Executive branch, civil rights enforcement mechanisms for resolution of disputes has existed almost untouched.

Our current reality is one of growing structural shortfalls at all levels of public education from sequestration, cuts in state education budgets, long-term health care costs from the Boomer generation about to hit full force on the benefits system. Even before these contemporary crises, many states were already dismantling special education without being called out for it. When one combines these factors with ever-growing numbers of students deemed eligible for special education (especially ASD), and the most obvious target to reduce those numbers is- and has been since the Clinton administration-the SLD category.

We have already lived through RTI and the silver-bullet reading programs that were supposed to eliminate poor teaching that unfairly labelled kids with LD, while bringing them up to grade level with their non-disabled peers. Perhaps RTI is the research/evidence-based data being referred to by Secretary Duncan and his colleagues, but from previously published data from these same professional sources, there is little to show from the billions spent and now that intervention is being tossed to the side and replaced with NAEP. It is the same stuff, just repackaged.

The RTI era is when we saw the rise of terms like learning differences and All Kinds of Minds- good in concept, devastating from public policy. Advocacy organizations need to push the message about how this condition is a real, significant set of neurological problems that may not really impact a person until they are in college, the workplace, or other settings. People don’t get the waxing and waning part of it.

In Arizona, our legislature is unwilling to go after available fed 4/1 matching funding (yes, that is four fed dollars matched to one state dollar!) to cover VR, Adult Ed, etc., but we have the most robust private/charter school choice program in the country. What is happening at the national level, has been happening across the states for many years. The direction Mr. Duncan is taking, seems more about reducing expenses, while viewing kids with LD as having only “mild” problems from those “really” disabled.

With the Common Core standards/rollout and promotion/graduation almost certainly being tied to a set of tests results, parents/advocates need to rally with a call-to-action regarding how a rerun of RTI and high-stakes testing for a diploma almost always violates the civil rights protections built in for equal education access and accessibility. Oh, and it does nothing to improve or prove consistent educational outcomes tied to such limited thinking.

Secretary Duncan has issued an RFP to research best practices for these types of high stakes testing. Here is a link to what the $50 million in funding is to cover. Most schools do not provide grade-level instruction, tutorials or test-prep at any grade level for exit or high stakes exams. This critical support is not being delivered anywhere consistently. Advocates should use that inequity as a basis for why these sorts of assessments don’t give the full picture of learning or address what they are designed to do. Equal time proposing additional graduation standards that are non-academic in nature (attendance, extra-curricular, work experience, service learning) must be part of a comprehensive transcript to be included for a broader picture of what constitutes student success beyond the school setting.

Statistics for adults with LD,ADHD, Asperger’s and mood disorders repeatedly show them experiencing chronic un/underemployment, lower higher education participation and graduation rates, and a level of isolation that would paralyze most of their non-disabled peers. A large body of policy makers and public officials continue to contend that LD is nothing more than a mild condition, and students with dyslexia/SLD “should be achieving the same test results” as students without disability!

Now we must begin to factor into this mix, the real possibility of more high school students with these conditions not able to graduate with a diploma due to not passing an exam not designed, intended or researched to accurately measure students with disabilities true subject/course knowledge. This outcome will make our national special education disgrace worse, as even fewer students with hidden disabilities leave without a high school diploma because they did not “earn it.”

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