By Valerie Strauss
Earlier this year I wrote about a boy in Florida who was forced to take a standardized test even though he was born with a brain stem but not a complete brain and doesn’t have the cognitive ability to understand the difference between an apple and an orange. While many disabled children can indeed meet the same academic standards as mainstream children, others can’t.
Here is an open letter from the mother of a young boy with autism who is findingschool in Louisiana harder than ever because he is being evaluated on standards — the Common Core State Standards — that he cannot meet. And the progress that he does make doesn’t count. This was written by Rebecca Ellis of Mandeville, a city in St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana, about her son Jackson. She is the assistant director of a regional resource center for individuals with disabilities and their families.
Jackson, who is almost 9 years old, spends the majority of his day in a regular education third-grade inclusion classroom. His mom says that he takes the same standardized tests as children without disabilities. He receives accommodations for testing such as extended time, individual testing, use of a calculator, etc., but it’s the same test. Fourth grade would have been the first year he might have been given an alternate exam, but the use of these alternative tests will end in Louisiana this year. His progress is being measured against the third-grade Common Core standards.
Ellis has met with legislators and policymakers for several years and testified before the legislature many times about the problems students with disabilities face in school. She wrote in an e-mail: “Each time I do, the response is sympathetic, maybe even empathic, and I’m asked to ‘keep the faith.’ The problem is Jackson cannot afford to wait. When will it be his turn? And when will the system reward his teachers for all the work they are doing that will never be reflected on a standardized test?’
Dear “Is Anybody Listening?,”
Several weeks ago I sat down with my son’s teacher and listened to her tell me what her priorities are for him for this year. She revealed that she is largely focused on reading comprehension and, to a lesser extent, writing. It is indisputable that those are areas of high need for him. But what she had forgotten and said very little about, until I mentioned it, was language and social interaction. I could see a light bulb go off in her head. Suddenly she understood. Yes, of course, I must work on those too. Then I saw something else. It was something I can only describe as concern, although an insufficient descriptor. She started talking about all of the third grade standards. She handed me copies of the standards which she had already printed out, tucked safely inside page protectors. The teacher began to ponder, ‘How will I address the core deficits of his disability in the midst of teaching the standards? Oh, maybe there would be a few minutes during group work or perhaps during a pull out session, but there’s so much to work on academically…’
We are over half way through the first nine weeks and, although every member of his team is working hard, Jackson is so lost. He’s lost in a sea of standards and expectations for him to think critically and explain every answer. It takes much more than raising the bar or saying you believe students with disabilities can achieve for them to actually achieve. You see, he has only answered a “why” question a handful of times in his life. Now he’s asked “why,” “how” and “explain your answer” all day long. What do you think is going to happen when you test and assess him? He is going to fail. It will look as though he cannot and has not achieved.
Let me tell you what he has done, though. Jackson had been permitted to isolate himself from all the children on the school playground for the last 2 years. We were less than one week into the school year and Jackson was no longer standing next to the wall, far away from his peers. He was under a tree next to the playground. Fast forward a few more weeks and he has played on the equipment a few times, but more spectacularly, he is engaging and playing a game of “I see you” with a little girl in his class. She enjoys him. She likes him. He likes her. They play together for a few minutes every day. No standardized assessment he will take this year or any year will reflect that progress. No teacher or related service provider will be rewarded for their role in facilitating this achievement. After all, it’s not one of the standards. It’s not on “the test.”
As an advocate, some days are very challenging when both working and living in the disability world. There are no breaks. There is no escape. I sit in rooms with educational leaders who make statements about the 43 percent (of students with disabilities who passed the tests last year) and then I come home to the sweetest little boy who falls in the 57 percent. A boy who has an amazing ability to tolerate the world around him, but who no longer wants to go to school. How will it get any better? When will it get any better?
It only seems like we’re heading in the opposite direction of improving outcomes for kids like Jackson.
After writing this letter, Ellis added in an-email:
By the way, the wall at recess is history. He’s out on the equipment and playing with a variety of classmates now. I recently went on a field trip with his class, and although Jackson doesn’t call them his friends, his classmates certainly looked like his friends to me. I’m not sure words can adequately express how full my heart was that day. It was something I wasn’t sure I’d ever see. Simply beautiful.