Thursday, January 8, 2015

Do Special Ed Advocates Want To Use Students

Over at EdWeek, Alyson Klein examines one possible source of resistance to big changes in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (aka ESEA, aka No Child Left Behind, aka NCLB).

The source is not a surprise, because we've seen it before. Klein says that some special education advocates are strongly opposed to removing the Big Time Testing component of ESEA.

Back in October, as the testing issue was beginning to heat up in Washington, the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, which includes the Council for Exceptional Children, the National Center for Learning Disabilities, Easter Seals and other organizations, sent a letter to the leaders of the House education committee opposing legislation that would have scaled back the number of tests required in the law. 

I'm not surprised. Every time I have written about the testing of students with special needs, I have heard from advocates who argue strenuously tat such testing be continued. The argument is always some variation of this one:

The NCLB law, which requires states to break out student achievement data by particular groups of students, including those in special education, "has provided so much good information we never had before about how students with disabilities are really performing," said Lindsay Jones, the director of public policy and advocacy for the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

There is also the occasional reference to how testing will help the students achieve-- Klein includes one such quote in her piece:

There is a great need for educators to have access to actionable, relevant, and timely information about student performance so that they can help students achieve. 

However, that sentence is followed by this one:

With transparent, easy-to-access, annual data on student performance, parents and educators are armed with the information needed to promote effective solutions to systemic issues at the school, district and policy levels. 

I have yet to see a convincing argument that The Big Test will help teachers help students with special needs. Most teachers of students with special needs have a huge battery of regular assessments that they already use. No-- the actual argument is this--

We need to have students with special needs to take these tests so that we can use the data points to help us lobby.

I do not doubt that in many, if not most, cases, we are talking about advocates with good intent, who truly want to find ways to get students with special needs the kind of support and resources that those students need and richly deserve.

Nevertheless, what we're advocating here is not testing for some direct, educational purpose. We are talking about using students to generate data for advocacy and lobbying purposes. We are talking about making students suffer through these tests so that their failure can be used to lobby for more resources. We are talking about punishing them with these tests so that somebody can go to a state capital and wave the results in some lawmakers' face.

There's a legitimate conversation to be had about whether these ends (appropriate resources blasted out of the steely grip of legislatures) justifies these ends (putting students through punitive and inappropriate testing), but to have it, we have to start by being honest. I can respect the desire to not have students with special needs disappear into a sea of collected data, but let's not pretending that generating disaggregated data serves any educational purpose. The people arguing that ESEA must keep the Big Test in place because of students with special needs are not advocating for something that has actual direct educational value. They want to use the students to make a point, and they need to be honest enough to say so.

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