Grades for Students with Severe Disabilities

25 Oct

One of the most common questions I am asked is “How do you grade the students you teach?” I mean, they don’t do any paper and pencil activities, they don’t produce anything and there are no permanent products. At the high school, every other student is producing something in the way of writing or projects or test scores. Oh…TEST SCORES which have become the gold standard in this country! Don’t get me started…

I do progress reports and have some sort of program data on most of my students, except for the very lowest ones, especially since discrete trial lends itself to accumulating data. But it does not translate well into the sort of letter/percentage grade that schools make teachers give high school students. A student may not be doing a single task independently during any trials and in any setting this would be viewed as a total failure. In my classroom, I look at level of support, and usually we have a mixture of trials requiring verbal, gesture, partial physical or full physical prompts. I suppose I could assign a score to each part of the prompting hierarchy and arrive at a more empirical figure. But when it comes to high school academic standards, no figure I could come up with would have any sort of validity. None. So when I do the report card, I take a wild guess according to effort, progress, and where we are in relation to goals. And most parents don’t have a problem with their teachers doing this as long as that grade is an ‘A’ or a ‘B’. As long as their child is making honor roll, they aren’t going to complain.

However I have over the years raised the ire of more than a couple of parents when they come from the middle school. For their entire school career of getting letter/percentage grades, they have been getting mostly 90’s the entire way through. Other teachers I have taught beside did exactly this, giving every student a 95 or 96. This is one of those Horace’s Compromise things, where there is a tacit agreement that “good enough is good enough” and we demand and deliver as little as possible. For other students, it is mostly between student and teacher: You deliver the minimum amount required to meet certain expectations, and you are rewarded accord to meeting the minimal criteria. If you want an ‘A’ you know the minimal performance required to get there. For students with severe disabilities, it is between teacher and parent: “Give my child an ‘A’ and I won’t ask for any justification.” So in a sense, I am severely disrupting that tacit little agreement when a student comes home with a 78 or a ‘C’. Now we have a problem.

The problem that I have is this: does a child who is uncooperative, disruptive, belligerent, violent, and otherwise assaulting themselves or other people legitimately belong on the honor roll? And what if, even in simple discrete trial tasks they are uncooperative? I’m not going to fail anyone on account of their disability, but neither can I justify elevating that into “honor” status. And it’s not like any of my parents are gong to take advantage of their child’s exam exemption to keep them at home!

So here’s, generally, how I arrive at a grade:

A = 90-100 – The student is totally trying and is making progress. It’s a bit relative, and with 9 kids, I have a sample size that allows me to judge who is the best and who is not. I might have given 1 ‘A’ this marking period. By the end of the year, I will have more. It means the student is making real attempts at completing things independently.

B = 80-89 – Most of my students are working in this area, which means that we still have some problems that we’re working on, but we’re still making some progress. I leave room to show improvement, so during the 1st marking period all grades are lower. I’m looking at the data and how much prompting and support is needed.

C = 70-79 – Here, we have many issues that we need to address, and many students will start here, especially if they come from summer break wild and off the chain. I have to work twice as hard to get them into the routine as the ‘B’ group. Freshman typically seem to end up here, as they are well below their classmates. Remember, this is ongoing. A student can totally move up by Christmas and still get their B and make semester honor roll if everything is going like it should be. But if a student is physically capable of pushing a button or pointing to a card and refuses or throws the material, we have some issues to work on. You should not be on the honor roll if you are refusing to do things independently when it is well within your capability. It represents a significant gap between potential and actual achievement. A person can’t give what they don’t have, and I take that into account. But if you’re slacking, do not expect a break. I’m just sayin’.

In our school, there are no ‘D’s and I’ve never given one anyway. Yeah, we ALL need improvement and my kids don’t need to be labeled as “poor”. The ‘C’ smacks over achiever parents hard enough as it is! Failure is not an option here. And it wouldn’t make any difference, anyway. If the kid is on the honor roll for 4 years, they will still stay 3 more. If they fail, they still come back. Conventional “promotion” doesn’t really exist compared to typical peers. However, I have promoted kids to the Moderate class, but that was mostly because they were misplaced in the first place.

In a sense, my grades are a reflection of what we do at school, but it can also be a reflection of what is going on at home, which is probably what alarms so many parents. In a typical, nondisabled classroom, we know that parents have a lot to do with how their kids do in school by providing guidance, structure and motivation. many students will not do any homework, unless a parent insists and prods and cajoles and bribes or whatever it is they have to do. Trust me, I know how much of an ordeal this is! Homework should be something students can do on their own with a minimum of assistance. For my students, it is a bit different, because they don’t have any homework that a student could do at home independently. I suppose I could do what many of the teachers of my two boys do and assign projects that demand parent involvement, like large intricate craft projects. Then I’d have something to grade! But then I suspect I’d get even more grief when I gave a lower grade than expected!

However, parents do have a lot to do with encouraging their children to do things independently, like feeding themselves or playing with toys or pulling up their pants. I see this more with feeding that anything else, as I’ve had occasion to socialize with other parents who have children with disabilities. I’ve irked more than one parent when at one of these events I got on top of them for spoon feeding a child who I knew was capable of feeding himself. Here you demand that we put this as a goal on the
IEP and work on it at school, and you are not doing this at home! Don’t demand a goal on tooth brushing on the IEP if you are not going to do it home.

So I have students who come to me and have no physical reason why they can not perform a given task. It’s not necessarily the student’s fault, but it reflects some ground that we will have to cover that should have been done previously. No honor roll grades, there. But that doesn’t mean that will always be the case, and hopefully we’ll get to the point we should have started.

Assessment for this population isn’t a matter of simply taking a test. You can’t just give them a pencil and paper and say “Here do this worksheet, answer these questions.” NONE of them are even verbal, so a verbal assessment is out. Most have limited mobility and serious motor issues, so manipulative assessment is out. And I’m not going to say a lot about a severely truncated attention span or limited perseverance. That’s not to say we can’t measure progress, but it translates very poorly into a report card A-B-C-F format. So I send home daily notes to parents in their notebooks. They are informed every day not just during quarterly report card periods. I’m more transparent than any other teacher in the building and possibly in the entire county! I have a blog! I have a video channel!

Grading is never a precise science, as there is a bit of an art to it. Most teachers of students with severe disabilities do neither, and just give the kid an ‘A’ whether it is earned or not. And that is fine for them, as long as we all agree that the grades on the report card don’t mean anything unless they open up Harvard to students with IQ’s in the single digits. But I’m trying to communicate at least a little bit with the hideous system that I’m forced to use, and convey some degree of meaning to something that isn’t terribly meaningful in the first place.

As a parent, when we went through school, grades were also used as a motivational tool. Study and work hard, get good grades and get rewards and honors and a good job. None of that motivational stuff applies to this population . Even if they comprehended the difference, quantitatively, between 78% and 98%, or an ‘A’ and a ‘B’ , why would they care? This actually applies almost universally to all students with disabilities. The graduation rate in my high school for students with disabilities is 30%. The employment rate for students with disabilities in my county is about 10%, with most of those being part-time or less. Which means that over 90% of students with disabilities emerge from high school with few quality prospects. Those in the population that I teach are not even at that level, and have a waiting list waiting for them when they leave my program. So in the grandest scheme of things those 1st quarter grades are not terribly relevant.

I want to say one more thing about grades, and this goes to everyone regardless of whether the student has a disability and cuts across grade levels and even that first college midterm. Mainly, that those first marking period grades should be intentionally more stringent than any others. That means that a student (and the parents) should expect the grades to be lower than “typical” for that child. This represents the first period of a new grade level/year with newer and higher expectations. If the student is already exceeding the standards in all areas, what is the use of continuing to go? Many students, when grades are a motivational, will go into “early retirement” if they think they have already got it in their back pocket. It also doesn’t give any indication of relative strengths in weaknesses especially when using marks like our elementary schools i.e. C,S,U,N or 1,2,3 or faces or stars. As teachers, we need to allow for room for growth. So as parents, we need to take a relative view of the marks coming out after the first marking period and not be too judgmental toward the the student or his/her teacher and those marks. It’s merely a guidepost and a relative indicator of where that student is at a given time.

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