July 18, 2007

NCLB identifies wrong target for students with disabilities

Erin Dillon's short piece yesterday, Labeled: The Students Behind NCLB's 'Disabilities' Designation, is a response to criticism of NCLB as unrealistic about the achievement of students with disabilities. Dillon argues that because approximately half of students with disabilities are identified as having learning disabilities, and because of the overrepresentation of minorities in special education, the critics are wrong.  Specifically, she writes that "the majority of special education students have disabilities that do not preclude them from reaching grade-level standards."

There are several issues here:

  • Do schools use special education as an excuse not to educate students identified as having disabilities?
  • Should schools be pushed to educate students with disabilities better?
  • Can students with disabilities reach the proficiency standard identified by states?
  • Is NCLB the best current tool to prod states and schools to educate students with disabilities better?

Dillon's answer to all of those questions is yes, and the clear implication is that the answers are linked: you think the answers to all questions are either yes or no.

I disagree with that assumption. More specifically, I'd say yes, yes, sometimes, and no. Let's at least acknowledge the fictitious nature of grade-level standard; in reality, states set arbitrary proficiency thresholds, but we can agree they divide the range of achievement into two ordinal categories. Given that fact, there is no guarantee that such thresholds are plausible for all students, regardless of the help provided. NCLB critics are correct in pointing out that 100% proficiency is an unrealistic standard in itself.

That fact does not mean that schools should be let off the hook, and NCLB's defenders are correct that having different standards for students with disabilities is dangerous. Yet you have to have different standards. And in Accountability Frankenstein, I have acknowledged the implausibility of using the response to formative assessment as a summative tool. 

A plausible way out is to allow students with disabilities to take different grade-level tests under a few conditions:

  • The student then follows the sequence of grade-level tests up each year (so that if a student is taking a 3rd-grade test in 4th grade, it's a 4th grade test the following year, etc.)
  • There are negotiated limits on the proportions of students allowed to take tests 1 or more years behind grade level
  • There is research to document what proportion of students we should expect to need behind-grade-level tests, with such research informing future limits on such exemptions.

If we are stuck with mediocre to awful annual testing, we should at least do it as sensibly as possible.

Mea culpa: I misread Ms. Dillon's name as Eric. My apologies!

Update: Dillon responds.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein on July 18, 2007 2:49 PM |