Thinking about NCLB Outside the Beltway: Those with Severe disabilities

30 Mar

It was brought to my attention that perhaps there might be some discrepancies between what people “inside the beltway” might be thinking versus those “outside the beltway” as far as NCLB and IDEA, specifically in regards to testing students with disabilities.  So I’ll address issues specifically in regards to testing those students with the most severe cognitive disabilities.


First off, let me define people inside the beltway.  Over there on the right, in my blogroll, you will see a category for Ed Policy Discussion.  If you are in that category, I’m thinking of you as an “inside the beltway” entity.  Everyone else is probably outside of it.  I don’t blogroll a lot of beltway/policy bloggers because I’m not quite as interested in what they write compared to real people with real stories. Real parents, real teachers and real people who actually have exceptionalities are infinitely more interesting to me. 
But a couple of these policy entities caught my attention early on, namely Eduwonk and NCLBlog, almost as much for their repartee when they go back and forth as anything else they write and publish.


Eduwonk wrote a recent response to a post published by John on NCLBlog that sort of caught my attention and I’m only just now getting a chance to respond. Eduwonk observes:


  The parent is impassioned by not completely right about the mechanics of the law in terms of students with more severe disabilities, but no matter for AFTie John, it’ll do! In fact, it reads like a more general criticism of testing, let’s hope the AFTies aren’t bending to the pressure to come into the fold with all the other groups!


One problem I have with beltway entities is that they are in love with testing.  They have a love affair with standardized tests because they are relatively cheap and easy compared to almost any other type of assessment.  This has become the tool of choice when determining how well a child is learning or how highly qualified a teacher is.  I’m actually totally fine if you want me to take any sort of standardized test.  When normed properly, I usually score towards the top.  On the last Praxis I took, I was in the 100th percentile. 


Eduwonk then goes into some discussion about the various types of students with disabilities and for arguments sake, I’ll use his categories for special needs students:


To oversimplify only slightly, there are really three primary groups* of special needs kids: Those that should be included in the mainstream system (eg vision or hearing impaired kids need access not a different set of standards and most students in the learning disabilities category should be included also), those who should be but with some modifications, and those that need something substantially different.


The NCLB policy is still clumsy with regard to that last group but the answer is, I’d argue, to be found in using data drive local flexibility rather than blanket exemptions as is basically the policy now. But, that last group is a distinct minority, despite the rhetoric the fact is that the “average” special education student does not have Down Syndrome or severe autism, more than half have learning disabilities and many of them just haven’t been taught to read well.


This is the problem.  I teach the third group.  There are maybe a dozen teachers in our county who teach that third group.  We are a minority, yes.  And at the hands of Eduwonk and the rest of the beltway entities, we repeatedly get tacked on as some sort of asterisk footnote.  We get forgotten.  When NCLB was written, special needs were barely considered at all and then were finally thrown in as an afterthought.  When Highly Qualified teacher provisions were written, no one thought about special ed. teachers.  We had to wait until IDEA 2004 came down and then we only had a few months to become HQ in order to comply with NCLB!


Eduwonk has a link to explain the mechanics of the law, which allows for an alternate assessment for students like mine.  You can read it for yourself, but there is one theme that is hammered into that document and NCLB over and over and over.  That is the concept of  academic grade level standards.  There is absolutely no way to comply with NCLB without it.  The centerpiece of NCLB is that every single child, no exceptions, will master grade level content standards by 20013.


So let’s talk about the most abstract of concepts to beltway entities: reality.


Larry will be undergoing the alternate assessment next year.  He is profoundly intellectually disabled with severe CP.  He can not feed himself, speak or do much of anything independently.  He does know how to smile when he likes something and cry when he is wet and needs his diaper changed, or to express his displeasure at having to sit in one position for too long.  Larry’s last psychological was done over 7 years ago, but his functioning has not improved substantially.  His independent functioning according to a recent assessment is at a level of someone 5 months old.  His IQ 7 years ago was 3.  Now, at the age of 17, I don’t think it would have risen substantially to get out of the single digit range.


You should have seen his mother’s eyes bulge when I showed her Larry’s academic goals for next year:


The student identifies, analyzes, and applies knowledge of the structures and elements of American fiction and provides evidence from the text to support understanding; the student:

a. Locates and analyzes such elements in fiction as language and style, character development, point of view, irony, and structures (i.e., chronological, in medias res, flashback, frame narrative, epistolary narrative) in works of American fiction from different time periods.


This is taken, word-for-word, from the state curriculum standard and it is from a list of required elements that had to be included in the alternate assessment this past year.  Remember, he is going to be in 11th grade.  He must be assessed according to grade level academic content standards!  It is true that I’ll put together some sort of portfolio showing some sort of proficiency instead of him taking the graduation test.  It will be watered down and show him accessing the 11th grade curriculum in some way.  But tell me: how is this meaningful?  In addition to American Literature, I’m going to have to assess Larry’s academic proficiency in American History, Biology or physical science, algebra and geometry. 


It is this nightmarish absurdity that makes me absolutely disgusted with pretty much anything inside the beltway or under any dome of any capitol.  IDEA was put in place to deal with how school systems discriminated against students with disabilities, but NCLB is counteracting that by pushing for conformity.  There is no possible way for the beltway to be able to micromanage what is taking place out in real classrooms.  As Eduwonk says in an asterisked footnote:


I’d argue, paradoxically, that IDEA’s vital emphasis on individualization has actually had the effect of working against customization for kids. You want customization at the school level but it’s less important and more unwieldy the further up the policy chain you go. But, that’s not an argument, as some Republicans are now making, to leave all decisions to the local school districts, it’s just an argument to get the balance and incentives right.


IDEA’s vital emphasis on individualization is the only provision that has made IDEA work at all.  Every single time they try to tweak it with incentives, it becomes mired in more red tape.  Eduwonk seems to think individualization could better be dicided in Washington D.C.  To diminish the individualization aspect of the law is to in fact repeal it and to increase the power of government at the expense of the students and their parents.   Lawmakers actually listened to parents on that one and I hope they continue to do so, rather than various beltway entities.  I would sooner trust my son’s mother, me, and his teachers and therapists to make the most informed decisions as to what he is capable of and at what pace he should be learning.  NCLB makes no provision for that, thus the empowerment of IDEA has been diminished.  I read Madeleine Will’s testimony and actually do agree with some things she said.  I also agree with what Eduwonk says in regards to some of those with milder disabilities not being adequately educated.  However in regards to the students I teach, common sense has been totally abandoned by the people in the beltway. 


Perhaps upon successful completion of his alternate assessment, Larry can get a job designing ballistic missiles for the Pentagon, inside the beltway.



One Response to “Thinking about NCLB Outside the Beltway: Those with Severe disabilities”

  1. Tara April 6, 2007 at 9:42 am #

    What makes me nuts is that the “inside the beltway” types think that chronological age corresponds with academic ability. Just because a 12 year old is in 6th grade doesn’t necessarily mean that they are on a 6th grade level…in either direction. Age is just a number. I recently read an article on CNN that said that whoever makes these inane laws are considering “allowing” more special education kids to take the alternative assessment. Hooray, more of us working extra hard to force these round pegs into square holes.

    If I were a parent of a severe/profound child I would never allow him or her to take the GAA. I would demand that they be instructed according to their IEP and functional goals.

    Just a few thoughts.

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