I am finding it very difficult to like Secretary of Education Arne Duncan these days. Recently he made some very discouraging comments regarding special education and essentially said that some states were giving their students with disabilities “a free ride.”
Mr. Duncan is pushing states to do away with the “2 percent rule” that allows them to certify students as being academically proficient when they are not. This viewpoint, that students with disabilities get special treatment and are getting a free ride, is a dangerous one. Special education is already underfunded and many students do not receive the services they need and lawfully deserve. To hear Arne Duncan further demean and degrade the students and teachers of the field by indicating they are not pulling their weight is very disheartening in an already education unfriendly climate.
Under No Child Left Behind, states must show that their students are making academic progress. This is shown through standardized assessments (which are biased to begin with- but that’s another article). All students take the same assessment based on the same education standards; however, states can give 2 percent of their students modified assessments. This 2 percent encompasses students with the most severe disabilities. For example, my state set guidelines that this alternative assessment can be given to students with IQs of 55 and below.
(Ed. Selena jumping in here, I know lots about the alternative assessments and wanted to give you a little more background. NCLB required that each state which sought to exempt 2-3% of the students with special needs who required the most intensive interventions from the grade level standardized tests needed to create an alternative assessment based on both functional skills and basic academics. In Indiana, we used an assessment called ISTAR, which not only measured my students against their chronological peers, it measured their progress against their previous scores. We were able to administer the assessment several times during a school year, which gave me constant feedback on how each of my kids were progressing. Using the milestones in ISTAR also made creating great IEPs (Individual Education Plans, they have different acronyms in different states, but they’re detailed goal setting/measuring systems for students with special needs and their team.) much simpler. ISTAR was a series of several hundred developmental milestones, on which each child was given a number score based on their ability to independently complete the task. Served up on our crappy little Windows 95 computers (in 2007), the test would use an algorithm to screen future questions based on responses to other questions. So, for example, if student A was ranked “independent” on “completes all tasks related to brushing his or her teeth,” the assessment wouldn’t then ask about each individual step. Because the testing process itself was so intuitive, it was a lot easier to measure and help my students who were really strong in one area, but had specific unmet needs in others, without creating unnecessary labels or overly restrictive programs. In my humble former-special-ed-teacher opinion, we should be assessing MORE kids with a system like this, not fewer. Back to Mona!)
The article is a little confusing as it refers to the 2 percent rule as applying to which students can take an alternative assessment and also as referring to states counting 2 percent of their students as proficient even without an exam (because they don’t have an alternative assessment?). Whichever is the case, this brings up the fact that standardized testing for students with disabilities is flawed in general. For some, by the very nature of qualifying for special education, these students are at least two years behind their peers. Of course they are not on grade level or “academically proficient.” However, they are still making huge gains and learning, but this will never been shown through the state exams or contribute to making the Annual Yearly Progress as set by No Child Left Behind. Furthermore, students with low IQs who are placed in a functional academics class are being taught just that: functional academics. Even the alternative assessment in my state tests skills that are much higher than my students are actually learning.
Mr. Duncan said that the reasoning behind doing away with the 2 percent rule is because:
We have to expect the very best from our students – and tell the truth about student performance – so that we can give all students the supports and services they need.
Do you know how you could do that, Mr. Duncan? By fully funding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and providing students with the services they need instead of vilifying the field.