Punishing Students With Disabilities: The Feds Turn Down New York State Request to Exempt Students With Serious Handicaps from State Tests.

Teacher, why are you so mean? I’m not a bad girl. Special education student to teacher during the state test.

The Huffington Post reports,

New York students with disabilities will be held to the same academic standards and take the same standardized tests as other kids their age next school year, the U.S. Education Department said Thursday, spurning the state’s efforts to change the policy.

The 2002 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law requires the testing, in English and Mathematics, of all children in grades 3-8, the only exceptions were children in the country less than a year and Students with Disabilities in the lowest 2 percent. Almost all Students with Disabilities (SWD) have to take the same exams as all other students, and, not surprisingly, SWD receive scores in the lowest percentiles, for accountability purposes, failed the exams.

For years, federal officials had allowed states to test up to 2 percent of students with disabilities at lower standards; last summer, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said he would abolish the rule and allow only 1 percent of students with the most severe disabilities to take a modified test.

In 2013 the state moved to the Common Core state tests and two-thirds of all students in the state scored “below proficient,” they failed the exams, and SWD failed at very high rates.

Parents and teachers across the state protested – the exams were poorly prepared, school staffs not trained and parents of SWD were especially critical – the tests were far beyond the cognitive ability of their children and were emotionally harmful. After months of discussions the state, in its application for an extension of the NCLB Flexibility Waiver asked for a change.

New York State had proposed allowing up to 2 percent of New York students with severe disabilities to be tested at their instructional ability — not their chronological grade year — up to two full grade levels below current grade level. The change would, for example, allow a 5th grader with autism to be tested on exams written for third graders.

New York State has abandoned the Regents Competency test, and, in spite of the SWD safety net (the passing Regents score for SWD is a grade of 55) the barrier to graduation for SWD was substantial even before the implementation of the Common Core exams.

Students, due to their cognitive disabilities, who had no chance of passing the exam, were forced to sit in rooms for hours taking exams, to their teachers and parents it was a cruel punishment.

A Special Education teacher,

We, by we I mean all the providers and the child’s parent(s) create an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that addresses the child’s physical and cognitive disabilities, sets goals for each student and monitors progress. We work with our students in whole class setting, in groups and individually, and we build our students’ self-esteem and confidence. We are prohibited from assisting them on state tests as we do every other day. The state tests are far, far beyond the abilities of our students, students are frustrated and frequently see the tests as punishment and ask why we are so mean.

Advocates, especially on the national level vigorously opposed the return to the 2% exemption level,

Some special education advocates hailed the Education Department decision, saying it will enable students with disabilities to continue receiving the same opportunities as peers. “We think it’s a victory for the potential of every child,” said Denise Marshall, executive director of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates Inc. “We thank the department for sticking to their guns.”

The proposal revived a concept known as out-of-level testing. Some civil rights and special education advocates opposed the proposal, saying it would shortchange vulnerable students, who they said should be tested alongside peers their own age so they don’t slip behind. For teachers and parents of SWD the issue is not “slipping behind,” it is catching up.

Proponents, including some teachers, argued that testing students with disabilities at levels out of their reach impedes their academic progress; the testing process is frustrating and cruel to students.

Advocates said, “… they had feared approval of New York’s testing change would have prompted other states to follow, segregating special education kids similar to ‘the Old South'” and advocates said they would continue to keep a close eye on New York. “Given the history, we will consider any proposals very carefully,” said Lindsay Jones, who directs policy and advocacy for the National Center for Learning Disabilities. “Lowering standards for students with disabilities isn’t the way go. Tinkering with assessments isn’t either. We need to get serious about providing accommodations and helping teachers have the tools they need to succeed.”

The irony is that the accommodations that Lindsay Jones advocates are being reduced each year in New York State. A bottom line: special education is expensive and school districts seek to reduce the costs by reducing the services required for SWD. New York State traditionally has had regulations that required a higher level of services than the federal requirements. In the budget scramble the governor’s office continues to attempt, with some success, to reduce the level of services to the federal level.

We applaud Lindsay Jones for advocating “getting serious about providing accommodations and helping teachers to have the tools they need to succeed.” In the meantime parents and teachers and their union are struggling to prevent further erosions in levels of service; the Common Core standards are dooming SWD, who, in spite of the yeoman efforts of teachers have no chance of passing these exams.

The purpose of testing is not to assist the teacher in driving instruction; the purpose of testing is to assess schools and their staffs. If students are not making Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) it is the fault of the educators. The fact that the SWD might be making progress in achieving IEP goals is irrelevant.

The feds, and some of the advocates, seem to be saying SWD have a cognitive illness that is curable within classrooms, which with the accommodations and teacher preparation SWD can achieve proficient scores on Common Core exams. I would agree that is a goal; however, for many students no matter the accommodation, no matter the skills of the teacher, their cognitive impairment will never allow the student to score proficient on the Common Core exams as presently constituted.

The current requirement violates the Eighth Amendment; it is a “cruel and unusual punishment.” To force students to sit for hours staring at pages and pages of problems well beyond their cognitive skills are damaging to the student.

It saddens me that so-called advocates are willing to sacrifice students for their own ideology.

We should develop tools, for examples, portfolios of student work aligned to IEP goals, instead of timed exams, as evidence of student progress.

The gap between the United States Department of Education and parents and teachers is incredible. The best decisions impacting children are made in classrooms by teachers and school leaders. The further from the classroom the more wrong-headed the decision.

Maybe we can learn from a nineteenth century philosopher,

From each according to his ability, to each according to his need, meaning, every citizen will make his particular contribution to the activities of the community according to his capacity, his talent and his age; it is on this basis that his duties will be determined, in conformity with the distributive laws.

4 responses to “Punishing Students With Disabilities: The Feds Turn Down New York State Request to Exempt Students With Serious Handicaps from State Tests.

  1. I agree wholeheartedly with you…a cognitive disability is a disability just as being in a wheelchair, being deaf, blind, etc…you just can’t “see” it. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. So by the DOE, we should ask the child in the wheelchair, or with cerebral palsy to run the 600 yard dash in gym, oh…you can’t? Well then you fail. Or how about the blind child in art history “describe the painting”… You fail. Or music appreciation for the deaf student, you fail. Can you imagine a gym teacher telling the wheelchair bound child “Just get up and run. You can do it. Just try your best! Come on run!” That would be abuse recognized immediately. It would be cruel and heartless….just as these tests are for students with cognitive disabilities…which is is why we refused to have our daughter take the test last year, and will do the same this coming year, and the year after that. I would encourage other parents to do the same.


  2. I’m not a parent; I’m a teacher. And I wish that I could encourage parents to do the same as you are doing, Jenn, and telling their kids to skip the new state exams. In theory, it’s correct. In practice, due to the way the DOE has tied teachers’ hands with these new tests, part of a teacher’s evaluation and ability to keep his or her job depends on students doing well on these tests. Your actions could cost a beloved teacher his or her job.

    So, I ask that when you keep your daughter out of school for the test you be sure to send a letter to the principal, to the superintendent, to any politician you can so that the school doesn’t get punished by your (very thoughtful, and very humane) political action.


  3. Pingback: Special needs children suffer from common core the most. | stopcommoncorenys

  4. One of the test accommodations that my students with learning disabilities have on their IEP is “tests read.” This allows them to be tested on their comprehension and knowledge of the material instead of being hindered by their reading disability. New York State will not allow us to read the ELA test to the students because it’s a reading test. However, if I were allowed to provide the mandated test accommodations that are listed on their IEPs, that are designed to level the playing field for a student with a disability, they would be able to demonstrate that they can comprehend on grade level, they just can’t read on grade level. So, the state effectively turns this into a decoding test that proves nothing more than that my students can’t read on grade level, which we already knew. It is very frustrating.


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