Monday, August 24, 2015

Duncan's Magical One Size Fits All Test Unicorn

One of the central tenets of Arne Duncan's edu-amateur structure of beliefs is that Low Expectations Are Bad. This has led him to the corollary that special education, adaptations, modified curriculum, and specially altered assessments are all bad things, that special ed is a morass of perfectly capable students who have been shunted into learning support programs because of race or misbehavior or any number of reasons. Once in special ed, these students go into academic free fall because they are surrounded by teachers who expect them to do poorly.

Like much that comes out of Duncan, this is not 100% baloney. If we're honest, we all know stories of students who ended up labeled special needs for every reason from being a behavior problem to having insistent parents-- but not actually needing a Learning Support label.

But Duncan's continues suggesting that the entire system of structures, rules, and pedagogy that has sprung up a some sort of complex dodge, a bizarre lie perpetuated as a way to keep students, selected almost at random, held back and stomped down. This is just... weird. One would think that in all his years in Chicago, he would have met at least one student who struggled with the difficulties of a disability that truly rendered her unable to achieve at the same level and pace of her fellow students.

We've seen Arne argue that all students with disabilities just need teachers who expect them to do well. We've watched him struggle through a grilling about USED's (non-existent) policy for helping students with dyslexia.

Well, here comes the latest USED pronouncement on the subject: Improving the Academic Achievement of the Disadvantaged; Assistance to States for the Education of Children with Disabilities, a rule that is supposed to take effect in about a month.

The rule is laced with the now-usual Department of Education balderdash. Let's open with this:

High standards and high expectations for all students and an accountability system that provides teachers, parents, students, and the public with information about students' academic progress are essential to ensure that students graduate from high school prepared for college and careers in the 21st century.

Torn between two questions here: 1) Why exactly are these things essential and 2) Is it going to be a problem that none of these things currently actually exist?

The document offers the history that way back in 2007, the feds were willing to allow modifications of standards and tests because 1) they believed "there was a small group of students whose disabilities precluded them from achieving grade-level proficiency" and who would take longer to get there and because 2) the regular state assessment was too hard.

But now it's 2015, and the feds believe that 1) newer research shows that "students with disabilities who struggle in reading and mathematics can successfully learn grade-level content and make significant academic progress when appropriate instruction, services, and supports are provided." This appears to be based mainly on meta-research, everybody's favorite sort of research. The feds also believe that 2) the new generation of tests are super-magical and can measure students of any level against all the standards.

Therefor, states should not modify tests or standards. Students with special needs should take the same tests and be accountable for the same standards-- but they should be totally successful at dealing with these things, because magic.

Any Discussion?

If none of this sounds new, it's because this rule was put up for discussion in August of 2013, with an opportunity for comments (the comment period was closed in October of that year-- about six weeks later). 156 folks shared their two cents, and the department takes some time to respond to some of those.

Some folks said, "You go, federal authorities." Using principle of "universal design of learning" and fixing accessibility issues "have eliminated the need for alternate assessments based on modified academic achievement standards." In other words, one size really does fit absolutely all! The magical testing unicorn can carry any student, whether she's 400 pounds or ten pounds or can't grip reins or is deathly afraid of unicorns.

One state-level person pointed out that their alternate assessments represented five years of time and money and actually were working quite well at helping students with disabilities have access a good education and helped teachers figure out how best to deliver quality educatin' to the students. The federal response is a mass of bureaucratic gobbledeegook that translates roughly to, "We hear what you're saying, but the new tests will be totally awesome and work great. Because, reasons."

Some parents made the point that without modifications, some students with special needs will not graduate-- can't we keep that? The feds respond with a pretty straightforward, "No, they can't do that any more." But they do note, as either a consolation or a further slap in the face, that states are required to provide a "free appropriate public education" even as the new rule will forbid it. Oh, those wacky federal rules. Put another way, IDEA and IEP's will still be required for the local school district, but under this new rule, the feds will require states to ignore both. There's a long discussion of the regs involved, but here's your bottom line:

However, under these final regulations, an IEP team may no longer select an alternate assessment based on modified academic achievement standards to assess students with disabilities under title I of the ESEA.

Some commenters argued that students with disabilities should not have lower standards because otherwise the students just fall behind-- because putting something on a test guarantees that students will master it no matter what?? But other commenters that setting students up for failure is sucky, and that "high standards" vary depending on the student ability. The department repeats its assertion that all students should be held to exactly the same standards because the only reason that students with disabilities fall behind their same-age cohort is that teachers give them easier stuff to do. Full speed ahead. Calculus for everybody.

But but but, argue some other parents and teachers-- giving students assessments that we know will be a "struggle" is just setting them up for failure. The federal response is. "We've rounded up some research that we think proves that students will do as well as you insist they do. So get in there and insist." Also, the new assessments are magical.

There's some discussion of timelines (originally the department thought this rule would come into play last year). There's some discussion of technical assistance and monitoring, which all boil down to more paperwork for state-level functionaries and the local officials they collect their data from. There's assurance that this will not affect students with "the most significant" cognitive disabilities. What actually gets your student into that particular club is not laid out, even a little.

Sigh. You get the picture. This goes on for lines and lines and lines of text, with the department occasionally dropping in pieces of crazy-making bizarro-world policy baloney such as

 The Department shares the goal that students with disabilities experience success. Removing the authority for modified academic achievement standards and an alternate assessment based on those standards furthers this goal because students with disabilities who are assessed based on grade-level academic achievement standards will receive instruction aligned with such an assessment.

So, students should succeed, and we will insure that they succeed by giving them one-size-fits-all assessments that ignore their developmental issues because we will tell you teachers to just make it happen, with unicorn horns dipped in fairy dust.

We eventually arrive as the department's assessment of the regulatory impact. Short form: they have no clue. Long form: some things, like taking high school kids who have had modified assessments their whole careers and now tossing them into the regular assessment may be hard, so we'll offer some grant money. For something? I don't know. Grants for wigs and toupees for special ed teachers who are tearing their hair out? Turns out that the impact statement doesn't cover things like "Large number of students with cognitive and developmental disabilities will now flunk and fail to graduate, become discouraged, and start looking for any kind of alternate education source."

Deep Impact

The new rule hits and hits soon, and it is going to be ugly. It is why the special ed teachers in your building are extra touchy; be extra kind to them. Meanwhile, Arne can keep riding his magical one-size-fits-all testing unicorn around the rainbow farm, secure in the knowledge that he has helped erase all cognitive and developmental difficulties in the country by simply insisting that they go away. Who knew it was so easy!


  1. Yep, he just waved his magic wand and solved everything.

    "The magical testing unicorn can carry any student, whether she's 400 pounds or ten pounds or can't grip reins or is deathly afraid of unicorns."

  2. Peter, TY for helping us laugh through the tears. USDOE demands we cure disabilities because they say so with magic tests, knowing full well there is no money to implement even rudimentary supports for very challenged children. For parents who are also challenged by familiarity with English, or by poverty, or little awareness of their child's IDEA rights, districts will take full advantage to deny needed services and resources. All this in the name of equality. And there is NO requirement that states and communities provide the needed funds to even minimally enforce what children are entitled to under IDEA. Tragic.

  3. Here's another doozy from Arne Duncan circa August 2011.

    On CNN, they repeated an interview Arne Duncan gave on the Atlanta cheating scandal, as the full scope of this was just coming to light in a mammoth report that was released:

    Back when this news broke, what was Duncan’s take on the Atlanta cheating scandal?

    Mehhh, it’s no big deal.

    ARNE DUNCAN (blase):
    “This is an easy one to fix: better test security.”

    Watch the August 2011 video:

    Oh, I’m so glad Arne got to the bottom of this whole problem, and identified the cure. We can all relax now.

    This interview is great. Apparently, this was just some local Atlanta reporter, but she asked some unexpectedly (it seems from Duncan's reaction) pointed questions.

    She asks him if the unrealistic expectations of NCLB are part of the problem, and he’s totally non-responsive… he doesn’t give a yes or no to this.

    Instead, he just says, “There are great teachers who are amazing… beating the odds… blah blah blah”

    Later, she says that “a lot of this is about money”, and asks if punishments and monetary rewards “need to be de-coupled from student learning.”

    Instead of owning up and admit this obvious reality—painfully obvious, in the light of what just happened in Atlanta– Duncan responded…

    oh no… not at all. We need to implement this MORE test-based monetary rewards for teachers and principals. Now is the time to double-down on all of that.

    We need to keep what's been "coupled" and "couple even more."

    Check out this word salad (including the usual Duncan smarmy snow job of praising teachers and principals… the same folks whose profession Duncan has destroyed... test-score-based monetary rewards is just Arne's way of "celebrating great teachers and principals"):

    (at 02:30)

    DUNCAN: (at 02:30)

    “Well, I think rewarding teacher excellence is important. I think I would argue the opposite (i.e. don’t “de-couple”), that far too often we haven’t we haven’t celebrated great teachers. We haven’t celebrated great principals who are making a huge difference in students’ lives.

    "You just want to make sure that they’re doing it honestly, and again, the vast majority of teachers are doing an amazing job, often in very difficult circumstances, in helping students beat the odds every single day. I think we need to do a better job of spotlighting that, and incentivizing that, and encouraging that, and learning from that.

    “In education, we’ve been far too reluctant to talk about success. We just need to do that.

    "We just need to make sure that we’re doing it with integrity.

    “Not too hard to do.”

    Really Arne? “Not too hard to do”?

    “Merit pay” and basing personnel evaluations and decisions on test scores has been tried countless times for over 100 years, and it has always failed.

    What you claim is “not hard to do” HAS NEVER WORKED.



    The Atlanta fiasco is but the latest, and perhaps the most dramatic proof of all this.

    In fact, when it’s tried, it actually causes severe harm—narrowing of the curriculum, turning schools into test prep factories, etc.

    Duncan’s corporate reform masters need testing to drive privatization, corporate profiteering, and union-busting, and so Duncan will defend to the death the misuse, and the over-emphasis on testing, and the massive over-testing in general, etc.

    Near the end, the interviewer is despondent over the news from Atlanta, claiming that she's lost her last heroes... teachers. She's desperately trying to get Arne to face the magnitude and far-reaching implications the Atlanta cheating situation has.

    Finally, Arne decides to change gears, and, in a moment of transparent insincerity, does some half-assed attempt at mirroring her feelings, just to placate her. It's totally fake and insincere.

    1. Add to this that teachers who tried to object to the cheating were transferred or fired.

  4. Thank you for shining a light on this, another Duncan disaster. In addition to this being awful policy, I find the fact that the USDOE released this on a Friday in August so disrespectful, like they were hoping no one would notice. Especially since this sat on the back burner for 2 years. People need to call and email and write to their senators and congressman. Americans have to stop accepting this usurping of the democratic process.