Wednesday, October 1, 2008

No Child Left Behind (AKA: Test them until they implode!)

It's not breaking news by any means. GWB signed that optimistic legislation in 2001 - a piece of legislation that sounded so absolutely wonderful, who could not buy into it? Finally, ALL children would receive a quality education.


For those unfamiliar with what NCLB actually looks like in practice, here's a tidbit.
(A) use the State academic assessments and other indicators described in the State plan to review annually the progress of each school served under this part to determine whether the school is making adequate yearly progress as defined in section 1111(b)(2);
Key words above are "State academic assessments".

If you haven't had a child or grandchild who has been subjected to the assessments yet, think back to the good old SATs you took in high school.

For many of us, the SATs were complete stressors. For those, like myself, test scores were rarely indicative of actual abilities (I had severe test anxiety and undiagnosed, ADHD). But, thank goodness we only had to take them once or twice.

Today's children, as young as 8 years old are taking State academic assessments on an ongoing basis, regardless of the anxiety such tests invoke.

What does this mean for our schools? It means that Mrs. Jones who used to be a creative teacher must put away her proven methods. She must stop making learning fun. She must now "teach the test". Failure of her students to achieve adequate scores on State academic assessments indicates that she is not an effective teacher. It also means her school could lose Federal funds.

Now lets take into account the fact that some kids do test well. That's just great. But they too, must continue to "learn the test" despite being excellent testers- add boredom and general disdain for school here.

But what about the child who is exceptional? How are those with learning and other disabilities affected by these tests? Some of that is determined by individual State regulations. However, NCLB requires that all children take these assessments regardless.

In Pennsylvania, there are some pretty rigid guidelines about accommodating children with exceptionalities. The code is non specific:
(j) Children with disabilities and children with limited English proficiency shall be included in the State assessment system as required by Federal law, with appropriate accommodations, when necessary. As appropriate, the Commonwealth will develop guidelines for the participation of children with disabilities in alternate assessments for those children who cannot participate in the State assessment as determined by each child’s Individualized Education Program team under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and this part.
Appropriate accommodations is the key phrase. What is appropriate? Let's dig further.Below are some of the allowable accommodations.
  • Braille
  • Large Print
  • Magnification Devices
  • Screen Magnification Software
  • Sign Language
  • Human Reader (Mathematics and science PSSA tests only)
Billy has Dyslexia. He is in 3rd grade Math, Science, etc. However, for reading, he is in a special remedial reading program. PA schools are not required to acknowledge a reading disorder in students until they reach age 7 and often put that off longer. Billy is now 8 and has started this program. He is only reading now at a pre-kindergarten level.

Billy will test at 3rd grade level for both Math and Reading despite his disability. He may have someone read his Math questions to him. However, for the Reading Comprehension tests, Billy is on his own. Billy fails the reading portion, miserably because he cannot read at this level yet. His comprehension is 0%.

Mary has an Autism Spectrum Disorder and ADHD. She is a "math wiz" when presented with numbers and patterns. However, due to her disabilities, she has poor executive function skills which interfere greatly with her ability to sequence steps for problem solving. In school, Mary uses preprinted graphic organizers to help her break down the steps necessary to solve word problems. These organizers are papers with prompts in steps such as:
  1. What do we already know?
  2. What do we want to know?
  3. Draw the problem in pictures.
  4. What type of problem is this?
  5. Show your work.
  6. Check your work.
These organizers remind Mary to break down the problem in sequential steps so that she can accurately process the information and solve the problem. However, during the State assessment, Mary is not allowed to have these organizers. She is on her own. Ironically, she is allowed to have a blank sheet of paper which she can then create her own organizer, were it she could remember the steps. Mary fails to score well on the math portion of the test due to the multitude of word problems.

So this brings to mind a very huge question. Why aren't these children tested at their own level? Why aren't they allowed tools to help them with a manifestation of their disability?

We all want our children to succeed in school. Yesterday's special education was merely "life skills" for those with cognitive disabilities. Today's expectations are much higher and rightly so. But, we have to acknowledge the efforts our schools ARE making to help these children learn. And we have to acknowledge that you cannot "teach the test" to these children.

State academic assessments are subjective, discriminatory and poor indicators of a school's performance or a child's abilities. And in this Mom's opinion...they are unnecessary stressors for our already stressed out kids.