How No Child Left Behind Left Special Education Students (and the rest of us) Well Behind

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Some educators have come to view special education as a placement for students with extremely low-test scores. Philosophically, I would fundamentally disagree with that sentiment. Special education is not a program or place, but rather specially designed instructional services intended to ensure equity and access to the general education curriculum by all students.

However, given the high-stakes accountability world we now live in, it isn’t difficult to see how this perception has arisen among educators. Instead of focusing on standardizing and improving the quality of instruction and learning happening in our classrooms, legislators chose to prioritize testing as the primary way ensure no student was left behind. Apparently, the consensus was that more testing would improve learning and that a more punitive accountability system would drive better instruction.

However, legislators did not want to invest a great deal of time or money to design and score quality assessments of learning. As a result, the lowest possible denominator of learning assessment became the reality for how learning was measured. Therefore, students were given multiple choices tests that often had little alignment to pre-existing curricular standards and learning targets already in place within school districts.

Consequently, while the law may have been well intentioned by legislators, in the rush to implement the law, not enough consideration was given to how the learning should be measured. The measure of a great assessment is the value of the information it reveals about a student’s level of learning. Great assessments are both diagnostic and prescriptive and the information gathered from them should drive ongoing, targeted instruction and enhanced learning. This can be done only when the assessments are closely aligned with classroom learning and experiences. Otherwise, the assessments are biased, as they are testing students not on what they learned in school, but what they have learned from other life experiences outside of school, which are very inconsistent.

Unfortunately, important funding and staffing decisions were made on the basis of infrequent multiple-choice examinations that often had little alignment to the educational experience to the students. Arbitrary proficiency scores were established that created a focus on achievement as opposed to growth. Special education students, who often scored below 41% were labeled as being non-proficient. Schools were often placed on a SINA list due to their special education students not being proficient; therefore, special education teachers had undue pressure placed upon them to improve a student’s test scores in order that the student’s scored proficiently.  In some school systems, the “specially designed instruction” became “teaching to the test” to attempt to stave off the punitive sanctions associated from reduced or loss of federal funding as a result of test scores below the 41% proficiency level.

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Worse yet, this focus on testing removed students from other classes that made school more enjoyable. Minutes spend in music, fine arts, physical education, recess, and science were drastically cut in favor of providing more minutes of instruction in reading and math, which were the two tests school districts were required to report out on. In essence, the punitive, high-accountability NCLB system merely created test-taking robots as opposed to well-rounded, engaged, passionate learners. A whole generation of students spent their entire PK12 education learning in such a system. How do they feel about education today? How well did this system of testing prepare them for success in their careers?

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