Friday, October 5, 2007

NCLB III: Testing Special Education Kids

Part 3 of a series on NCLB. Links to previous posts available here.
One of the biggest complaints about NCLB is that only 2% of students (essentially, up to 20% of all students with disabilities) can take modified assessments. Here's the debate in brief - those concerned with extending modified assessments worry that special ed kids will be overlooked if the standards are different, while others worry that these kids - who are classified as special education in many cases precisely because they aren't working on grade level - are being asked to do something that's educationally and developmentally inappropriate.

What do we know from states' experience with special education exemptions? David Figlio and Lawrence Getzler, looking at data from Florida, found that such loopholes led educators to hide low-scoring kids in special education. Julie Cullen and Randy Reback, analyzing data from Texas, found similar processes in play. Neither of these states had strong participation rules, so reclassification is not as big an issue under NCLB as it has been in the past. However, rational choice theory would predict that if teachers face high pressure to push some students but not others forward, these kids may very well be neglected. I can't stress enough how ridiculous it is blame educators for responding to the incentives presented; it's no different than arguing that guns don't kill people - people kill people. As I discussed on Monday, a system that incentivizes teaching some kids (those close to passing) over others will inevitably produce this result, and the same goes for special ed incentives.

On the other hand, we can imagine that there are potentially negative social effects of the current approach (i.e. all kids on grade level, no matter what) on kids facing tasks they're simply not prepared for. A new book instructive in thinking through this issue is The Short Bus: A Journey Beyond Normal by Jonathan Mooney. He's a young and fresh voice in the literature on learning disabilities, and is an entertaining read. Check out the video clip at his website above, and here's the blurb:

When his teachers decided Jonathan Mooney needed special ed because he couldn’t follow directions, sit still, or read well, he feared he’d lost his chance to be a regular kid. Suddenly he was “not normal.” Suddenly he was a short-bus rider destined to travel a harder road, a distinction that screamed out his “difference” to a hostile world. Along with other kids facing similar challenges, he was denigrated daily....ultimately, Jon shocked the skeptics, graduating from Brown University (with honors). But he could never shake the voice that insisted he would always be “less than.” So he hit the road. To free himself, he dreamed up an epic journey across the U.S. on a broken-down short bus. This inspiring record of his odyssey documents Mooney’s search to help himself by learning from others once labeled abnormal who had learned to live in beautifully original ways.

My take-home point: special ed kids are going to get a raw deal in terms of academic attention if they aren't incorporated into the accountability system. I worry about the social consequences, too - but think that teachers' social and emotional support can in many ways alleviate this problem.

That said, these comments should be taken in the context of my earlier comments about measurement. As I've written before, it doesn't make sense to say that schools are failing when they can't get all kids to proficiency, special ed or otherwise, because a) it's an unreasonable goal, and b) they are not all working with the same inputs. All of the points that I made about measuring teacher effectiveness fairly also apply to schools, too.

Enjoy the weekend, everyone!

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