Students with special needs deserve exceptions to high-stakes testing

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During last week’s Opelika City School board meeting, I was privy to assistant superintendent Brenda Rickett’s explanation of the system’s recent Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) results, those ultra-important percentages from the state that are allegedly meant to tell us whether our system’s schools are up to snuff.

It seemed that this year’s reading scores were not up to their proper levels across the system; though the percentage of children passing these high-stakes tests had risen over the last few years, it had not risen enough to please the educational gods in Montgomery.

In two cases, Opelika missed a passing grade on these tests because children who fell into the “special education” subgroup failed to score high enough of some of their tests.

This gave me pause.

“We’re making special education students take these tests?” I said to myself. “Seriously?”

Having known several special education teachers over the years (and having worked with students with special needs myself over the years), I found it downright mindboggling the state of Alabama would want to give high-stakes tests to those students.

We call these kids “students with special needs” because each of them is special and each of them has needs different from every other student.

The nature of high-stakes testing is meant to homogenize and blend together students into that almighty percentage, that simple pass or fail number, and seems to go against the style of individualized education and attention that is the spirit of the special education movement.

In your average special education class, you find students who run the gamut of disabilities, from developmental impairments to intellectual issues, from autism to Down’s syndrome and from specific learning barriers to kids with severe speech and language concerns.

Special education teachers have to spend their time catering to each of these wildly differing students’ needs, making sure they can understand the state standard mandated instructional materials in front of them using the methods that these teachers know works best for those individual students.

Sometimes, it’s beyond difficult for these teachers and aides to fulfill this task.

When you’ve got a pupil who, for all intents and purposes, thinks on the level of a six-year-old, it can be a Herculanean task to get that student to sit still long enough to try to get him/her to learn a ninth grade science standard like the names and locations of the planets, much less getting him/her to retain the material.

If daily lessons are a struggle, I shudder to think of the burden those students face when it comes time for these high-stakes standardized tests.

While it seems all well and good to want to hold every child to high standards, to want them to succeed at the best level they can, unfortunately not every student can meet those challenges, and what’s left is sadness and frustration on the part of teachers, parents and our friends with special needs.

Often, these educational policies are designed and mandated by politicians and bureaucrats who seldom see the inside of a regular classroom (outside of the occasional election year photo-ops), and seldom visit our special education classrooms at all.

Instead of forcing these students to have state-mandated standards and plans of study hammered into their brains, why can’t we take a more common sense approach and give these kids the sort of hands-on vocational and life training they’ll actually need once they leave school and enter the real world.

Instead of teaching them the planets, why not show them how to read and interpret restaurant menus, so they can order for themselves when they get hungry.

Instead of talking about valence electrons and balancing chemical equations, let’s teach them chemistry they’ll use in their everyday lives, showing them what household cleaning products not to mix together so they won’t cause accidents that may hurt themselves or others.

Instead of complex algebraic equations, let’s show them how to count out correct change from a cash register, useful basic math skills we could all benefit from learning.

Our students with special needs are great kids with the potential to lead normal, fulfilling lives that they themselves can manage and control.

But, they can only succeed in this task if those who control our schools’ curriculums can recognize a simple fact: those high-stakes test scores they revere so much only tell them one thing about our schools – how good kids are at taking those tests.

Until they take off their testing blinders, all of this is just a moot point.

We all want our kids to grow and thrive as best they can, but shoving testing at these kids isn’t the right way to produce excellent results, and, quite frankly, it never will be.

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