Special Education Students Failing High Stakes Testing

State-wide testing is a complicated and controversial issue for children with special needs in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and across the nation.

On the one hand, state testing can be a valuable barometer for parents — providing a measure as to how their children are doing as compared to a state or national average that includes all general education students.

On the other hand, schools can put a lot of pressure on students with special needs as test time approaches, often creating unnecessary anxiety and pressure on children already struggling in school.

Worse, in some states there is mandatory retention based on how a student scores, and special needs students are forced into grade retention that might otherwise not be appropriate.  Here is a link to a recent story from Oklahoma, discussing how almost 50% of the special needs third-grade students in that state failed to demonstrate an ability to read.   By Oklahoma state statute, many are now being held back a year.   http://www.tulsaworld.com/news/education/oklahoma-special-education-third-graders-parents-grapple-with-reading-test/article_0c62a0bf-178e-5394-8ecb-cea895115ed5.html    As the news report recounts, this is particularly problematic for students who are severely hearing impaired or have other specific disabilities that render the testing inappropriate.

Many blame the tests themselves, and much of that criticism is deserved.  All testing should be rigorously examined.

However, parents through their IEP teams can certainly battle against districts or teachers who spend too much time preparing for the state testing (because it affects the school’s performance scores) and/or creating misplaced fear and anxiety in vulnerable students.

Parents can also insist where appropriate that their child not be given supports during such testing that are otherwise not provided for the child at school.  Many schools without discussion with parents slip additional services into the IEP only for state testing.  When they do so, it is clearly for the benefit of the school’s performance scores rather than the child, and can undermine the usefulness of the testing for parents.

Most important, parents should not just buy into a school District’s contention that it is the testing that is at fault — rather than that the District has in fact failed to properly educate the students with special needs.   For all of the “progress reports” based on subjective reporting that parents receive from the teachers during the year, an objective state-wide test can sometimes expose this alleged “progress” as less than meaningful.

By way of example, the students in Oklahoma with the more unusual circumstance of deafness or brain damage as discussed in the attached news report do not make up the near 50% of the special education students who failed in reading.   Certainly the actual reading instruction for students with special needs in Oklahoma schools should be heavily scrutinized.

For these reasons, all parents of children in the special education system should be careful about too quickly joining the educators’ call for reduced state testing, and examine instead whether such testing has in fact revealed deficiencies in the services provided by the school.

Remember, in Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey, students with special needs are entitled to programming that provides “meaningful education,” which requires “significant learning” that accounts for a child’s aptitude.   State testing can be a tool to measure whether your school is meeting your child’s needs.

Jerry Tanenbaum, Special Education attorney in PA & NJ

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