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Volume 3 , Issue 1 Date: Spring, 2003 Topic: Expectations Through Life's Passages

High Stakes Testing: Salvation or Crucifixion of Students with Disabilities?

by Suzanne G. Peyton, Executive Director, MASSPAC

There is no question that the high stakes testing movement has caught on in various states. Most recently, the No Child Left Behind Act-the 2001 reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act-mandates a massive increase in state assessments. States will be required by 2006 to assess all students annually in reading and math in grades three through eight and once in high school.

This concept has generated a firestorm of debate for all sides of the issue with a lot of unresolved issues remaining. Whether you are in favor or not of high stakes testing, this article will review the relevant issues that impact the student from a parent perspective. It seems that throughout the raging debate, the focus on children (students) is lost or misplaced and advocates for education and children must get that focus back on track. The concept of high-stakes testing is to improve the educational outcomes of children, is it not? The debate whether high stakes testing is acceptable or not will be left to others to dissect.

What is not debatable is that students with disabilities be counted in along with every student required to take these types of tests. If every student counts, then every student counts. If every child is to be educated to a certain standard, then every child is to be educated to this standard. We cannot accept a lower educational standard of students with disabilities, yet this is still quite pervasive in this country, though it is illegal to do so. Many educators still believe that students with special needs drag down classroom performances. Many educators still believe these kids should be taught somewhere else. Many educators do not want students with disabilities in their classrooms and their unions allow senior teachers to get away with that.

To be fair, this view is not only in the realm of education, but in business and it is still pervasive across the country. Fifty-five percent (55%) of college-educated people with disabilities are unemployed versus fourteen percent (14%) of their non-disabled college educated counterparts. (1) For those disabled individuals who do not have a college education, the unemployment rate is over eighty five percent (85%). As a society and country, we still have a lot of evolving to do before we fully embrace and accept people with disabilities as part of the mainstream.

Some twenty years ago, children who had special needs and major disabilities were excluded from public schools. They were at home or warehoused in institutions with the most deplorable and horrible living conditions. Parents will never go back there. We will not allow our children to be discriminated against, nor under-educated ever again. Strong laws for students with disabilities have been enacted, though these are still work in progress. Just when you think (as a parent) that you understand what rights your child has for an education in this country and have evolved into an effective advocate, that some major political action group try to dilute the laws because they are inconvenient and difficult to implement in school districts. I do not ever recall having learned as a child that something that is worthwhile and right ever was an easy path to follow. Why should schools have it any different?

TheNo Child Left Behind Act does require that racial minorities, low-income students, and students with limited English proficiency or disabilities to close the gap with their higher-scoring peers. This is certainly a worthy goal, but studies such as the one by Thomas Kane and Douglas Staiger have found that racially and ability integrated schools will be more likely not to make adequate yearly progress simply because they have more mixed groups of students who can fall short. These schools have greater social needs, and many receive less academic support at home. (2) How can we hold students responsible, in any way, for these shortcomings? How can students with disabilities ever have a fair chance within this scenario?

We do have wonderful reports across the country of students who have significant disabilities that have met the state educational standards and have not had their education diluted by patronizing attitudes. Some have passed the exit exams on the first try! If we do not reduce our expectations for these students, they will rise to meet that higher bar. This is what parents of students who have disabilities continue to fight against-reduced academic expectations. There is no question that some very complex and severely disabled students may not ever being to meet these standards, but these cases need to be reviewed and treated individually, with great care, concern and dignity. Set the bar high but allow for exceptions based on set criteria, and even within that, there should be exceptions since we cannot predict or know what type of students with disabilities will come through the system.

As a parent of children with both medical and learning disabilities, and the director of a parent association in special education, my concern is on whether the whole testing environment helps students learn well, gives them the tools and knowledge they need to succeed in moving beyond childhood and become effective adults that can take care of themselves financially and emotionally.

Surveys conducted by Public Agenda, the American Association of School Administrators, report that parents want much more than just academics for any of their children. Parents want a supportive and engaging social and educational environment. We want our children to have opportunities to learn many things, including, but not limited to the "basics" defined by people who do not live in our communities. We want our students to learn to participate in a democracy and become contributing citizens. But, the pressures of high stakes testing is forcing school boards and administrators to eliminate recess, cut art and music programs, minimize history, and limits our children's school experience to make room for more test preparation in math or reading so the district looks good in a state's ranking of these high stakes tests. This really veers our educational values and goals into an entirely skewed direction, which has not been shown to make a significant impact in the quality of education as a whole. Interestingly, this whole high stakes debate focuses only on public school systems-not private schools.

There is an assumption that private schools have "cracked the code" in teaching what is needed, and they have a winnowed and elite student body and are not subject to the laws that require high stakes testing. Private schools do not need to prove to the nation that they provide a good education primarily because the tuitions are paid for privately and not taxpayers. I am not sure why the "success" criteria can be determined by its funding source, but that is an underlying basis for the direction and impetus of the high stakes movement as it stands today. Even in private special education schools, students whose parents pay privately for them are not required to take these tests, yet students who are there and the tuition paid for by the school district (via taxes) are required to take them and they must meet the state requirements whether that school teaches those or not! (3) Just imagine, on the mandated test-taking day, at a private special education school, all private pay students go to their regular classes and continue learning, and all those "public pay" students are sequestered into a separate area for testing. This reminds me of sending certain groups of people to the back of the bus!

If the purpose of public school education is to educate each child and provide that individual the tools s/he needs to become an effective and contributing citizen of this country, how can this criteria be met when high stakes testing actually prevents many students from being able to accomplish this? If high stakes testing demonstrates we are not successful as a nation teaching its children what they need to learn, then the adults should be held accountable for that failure, certainly not the students.

Even Suffolk Superior Court Judge Margot Botsford has stated that the state has not done enough to prepare students and to hold schools accountable. "It is the students who are paying the price at present for the system's failure to meet its educational obligations." This statement was made in relation to a Massachusetts legal case relative to students filing a request to stop state education officials from withholding diplomas this spring, the latest development in a lawsuit challenging the high stakes test (MCAS) graduation requirement. (4)

Across the United States, nineteen of the fifty states have passed legislation requiring "exit" exams, or what is often referred to as "high stakes testing”, in order for seniors to graduate and receive a high school diploma. As mentioned earlier, by 2006, all states will need to do so as specified in the No Child Left Behind Act. There are some variations to the criteria, but generally, this requirement is for all students with all abilities. Children with any disability are expected to pass this exit exam as well in order for them to move on to the next stage of their life. The big question here, is whether these students have even been taught what all other students have been taught, and if there are even able to process and retain the information required on these tests. And if they have not, what accommodations are made available to them so they can handle this challenge with what they have been taught (or not), and proceed with their lives past high school.

Throughout this debate the focus on children keeps getting misplaced or lost. What is best for a child should be the starting point of any law or regulation regarding the education, health and well being of children. Right now it is all about money and funds and highly visible rankings that are based firmly in the political realm. Our children are the footballs that are tossed about in this firestorm. We should always ask the questions, "Who will this benefit and how will improve a child's life?" How will the implementation of this make a child's school experience positive and nurturing? We should always assess whether these actions will be the "salvation for children or their ultimate crucifixion." Many college freshmen look back at their high school experience as hell and one to be survived. This is education?

At this point in time, I see more divisiveness and corrosion of the human spirit in terms of real fallout and the stress that students are experiencing. We cannot ever lose sight that we, the adults who vote and pay those taxes, have a very important part to play in determining how this issue will eventually play out. We must focus on the needs and the future of our children. They deserve the best we have to offer them and should never be used as a political bludgeon. We should always ask ourselves, "How are the children?" (5)

(1) National Organization on Disability, 2000 Harris Survey on Americans with Disabilities
(2) American School Board Journal, February 2003, High Stakes, High Risk
(3) Massachusetts, MCAS testing requirement
(4) Boston Globe, April 5, 2003, City & Region, Judge denies an injunction in MCAS case
(5) How Are the Children? Sermon: 1991, Rev. Dr. Patrick T. O'Neill, Senior Minister, First Unitarian Church of Wilmington, Delaware

 Suzanne Peyton awarding President of the Sharon Special Education Parent Advisory Council, the MASSPAC  Leadership AwardSuzanne Peyton is the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Special Education Parent Advisory Councils (MASSPAC) and the mother of two boys who have medical and learning disabilities. Mrs. Peyton is also a member of her local School Board in Sharon, Massachusetts.

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