Jamming Square Pegs into Round Holes: Arne Duncan Sets Sights on Special Education

United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced a new focus on special education on Tuesday of this week.  The federal government will shift its resources for monitoring state compliance with the Individual’s with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) from examining procedural compliance and begin looking at “outcomes” for students with disabilities using a new framework called “Results-Driven Accountability (RDA).  This new framework will include participation in state curriculum assessments and data on reading and mathematics achievement for disabled students using the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) the examination sponsored by the DOE every two years to gather a snapshot of national trends in education.  According to the Washington Post:

To calculate how states stack up under the new criteria, the department is using a complex matrix that weighs several factors, including how well students with disabilities perform on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, a test the federal government gives to a sampling of students in every state every two years.

NAEP is designed to offer a snapshot of academic performance. This marks the first time the government has tied NAEP scores to consequences.

Duncan brushed aside the suggestion that the new approach adds to a climate of high-stakes standardized testing. “I wouldn’t call it high-stakes,” he said.

Given that the federal government allocates 11.5 billion dollars a year to the states to assist with special education, that assurance is likely to ring hollow to state and local officials charged with compliance.

I will give Secretary Duncan credit for one factual observation in his conference call with reporters;  most students who qualify for an individualized education plan (IEP) do not have cognitive disabilities that severely limit their ability to engage with a challenging curriculum.  But pretty much every other underlying assumption of this shift to an RDA compliance system is problematic.

Let’s start with the existing compliance of states under previous federal guidelines.  The DOE notes that under previous compliance guidelines, 38 states were in compliance with IDEA and under the new guidelines that number will drop to 15. I would suggest that if previous compliance standards which focused upon procedural compliance told the federal DOE that 38 states were in compliance with no need of assistance or intervention then those procedural guidelines were hideously flawed.  The Bay Area NBC station found over 10,000 families in California went to court over disputes with districts over special education services, and that number represents only the fraction of families that had the resources to pursue their dispute to that level.  Even Massachusetts, a state that pioneered services for disabled students and which meets the new requirements, is not precisely immune from being sued for noncompliance.  While states are rated on their compliance, it is up to actual districts and schools to implement the provisions of special education law, and many districts, suffering from budget restraints and state aid cuts, have to be sued in order to even begin an evaluation process for a potential special needs learner. Secretary Duncan made some deal about the DOE’s 11.5 billion dollar commitment to special education in the country, but with 6.5 million students eligible for services, that amounts to an underwhelming $1,769.23 per student nationwide, and the Council of Exceptional Children (CEC) notes that in 40 years, the federal government has NEVER fulfilled its promise to fully fund IDEA.

If Secretary Duncan wants to improve services for special education students, he could start by endorsing full funding of IDEA and actually determine if states are even in procedural compliance with far better measures than currently employed.

Another flaw of this plan resides directly in the use of state assessments and the NAEP for purposes of assessing state compliance and, eventually, adding punitive measures for states whose disabled students do not make regular improvement on those exams.  Placing this requirement on the NAEP would be tremendous mistake for several reasons.  NAEP is designed to provide a snapshot of the educational landscape in the United States, and part of its usefulness is tied the lack of any significant stakes attached to it.  By potentially tying special education compliance to the NAEP, the incentive will exist for states and districts to make special education students’ education consist of test preparation.  Mr. Duncan can breezily dismiss that concern all he wants, but the best way to assure that special education students across the students find themselves in self contained classrooms aimed at test preparation is to measure compliance this way.  We have some idea about how this unfolds from NCLB already.

Secretary Duncan also made major mistakes in his assessment of special education students’ “rising to the challenge.”  I must emphasize again that he is partially correct:  classified students CAN and, in fact, DO achieve within materials similar to or identical to their general education peers.  Very few of the students who qualify for IEPs under federal law are significantly cognitively disabled, and it is an article of faith among professional teachers that “all children can learn”.

BUT — that article of faith comes with an important caveat: All children can learn to the degree of their ability when provided with appropriate accommodations and when measured in a manner that allows them to demonstrate their understanding.  In a way, this corollary applies to all children, but general education students are more likely to cluster around a set of skills and capacities that distribute normally on a standardized examination.  By definition, many students with disabilities do not, and this does not mean that they are incapable of learning.

It means we are often incapable of measuring their learning in a fair and accurate way via a paper and pencil standardized test.

This does not require a lot of imagination.  Picture a child with severe dyslexia or ADHD.  This is certainly a child who is capable of learning, and a skilled general education teacher working with a child study team and following a well designed IEP can create assessments of learning and supplemental experiences in the classroom where that child demonstrates substantial learning.  That same learning may not be on display during a paper and pencil standardized examination that requires hours of time in a seat.  This can apply to a child with sensory issues or a behavioral disorder.  It is not that schools should or do abandon such a child to not learn within the goals of a general education curriculum: it is that the entire process of special education is meant to serve accommodations that allow the child to engage the material and demonstrate learning in appropriate ways with input from experts on learning.

Mr. Duncan, do you have a standardized exam that does this?

But this is the problem with the federal DOE under Secretary Duncan.  Having committed to big data sets as the be all and end all of understanding what is going on in education and having determined that standardized test scores are the most important measure of educational accomplishment, we now have a special education compliance policy that is going to try to force the most square of pegs into Secretary Duncan’s round hole of test based accountability.

Image from Toothpaste for Dinner: http://toothpastefordinner.com/archives/2011/Jun/

Image from Toothpaste for Dinner: http://toothpastefordinner.com/archives/2011/Jun/

Before ramming 6.5 million special education students into test based accountability, I would suggest several alternative approaches:

1) Vigorously advocate for the CEC’s proposal to FULLY fund the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act.

2) Monitor GENUINE procedural compliance with the provisions of IDEA.

3) Add new compliance measures such as parental satisfaction surveys with special education services provided.

4) Assist states with creation of qualitative measures of special education students’ progress.

5) Add federal assistance to community agencies that help connect families in poverty to special education services

NAEP data can remain what it ought to be: a snapshot of student skills that can inform the creation of further policy, but not be linked to consequences.

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Filed under Data, politics, schools, teaching, Testing

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