Last week, the US Department of Education came out with a new policy for special education: Results-Driven Accountability (RDA). Under this new policy, schools will now be held accountable that children with disabilities make progress, presumably on standardized measures.
Michael Yudin, the acting secretary for special education and rehabilitative services stated “Less than 10 percent of our nation’s eighth graders with IEPs are scoring proficient in reading, according to the best available data. We can and must do better. RDA is about using the accountability framework to provide states with incentives and support to implement evidence-based strategies to improve results and outcomes for students with disabilities.”
What is proficient? Proficient means that a child is scoring in the average range on a standardized test.
By nature, standardized tests deem what is average by looking at a Bell Curve. Here is an example of this:
When test creators make a test, they assess a range of children in order to look at how the children perform. Good assessments have data that falls into a curve. Some children score high, most score in the middle, and some score low.
If no children scored below a certain point value on a test, the result would be a higher average score. Because of this, it is impossible for every student to be in the average range. This is one of the fundamental flaws of the No Child Left Behind Act. Under NCLB, schools need to show progress each year, with more and more students scoring in higher ranges on standardized tests. Realistically, once schools reach a certain level of proficiency, they will start to be penalized for not making progress, even though they have attained excellent scores for their students. As an example, New Trier High School in Winnetka, IL, arguably one of the highest performing schools in the country, failed to meet NCLB because it stopped improving results on tests yearly.
How does this impact students with special education? Schools qualify students for special education Individual Education Plans (IEPs) in different ways. However, a similarity across states and districts is that IEPs are typically given to students scoring 1-2 standard deviations below the average, either on standardized academic tests or on psychological examinations. More simply, in order to have an IEP, a student must be below average in an area that has an educational impact.
Standardized tests, by nature, become harder at each advancing age range, and with each new test there is a new bell curve. It would take a bit of magic for most children scoring 2 standard deviations below average one year to rise into the average range on a harder test with a new standard deviation the next year.
Arne Duncan stated, “We know that when students with disabilities are held to high expectations and have access to the general curriculum in the regular classroom, they excel. We must be honest about student performance, so that we can give all students the supports and services they need to succeed.”
We'd like to ask Mr. Duncan to define what it means for a student to excel. If he means that all children will perform in the average range on standardized assessments, his statement would be inaccurate. Standardized tests are made "standard" by sorting students into ranges: above average, average, and below average. If all students scored the same on a test, this would be deemed an inappropriate standardized instrument.
At Speech Language Literacy Lab, we don't believe in magic. We do believe in ensuring that all students learn and improve their skills through solid instruction. We do believe in appropriate educational planning that looks at each student as an individual. We believe that accountability in education means measuring an individual student's growth on the same measure from one point in the year to another point. For students with special education needs, these assessments should be chosen individually to match individual student's developmental levels, as described on their INDIVIDUAL education plans. As educators, we can not control where students begin the year with their skills. We can, however, be held accountable that students improve their skills by the end of the year, in comparison to where they started at the beginning on the same assessment.
We don't believe that all students will score in the average range on standardized assessments, and anyone who believes otherwise simply doesn't understand how the average range is created.