Peter DeWitt, an elementary school principal in upstate New York, tells a shocking story here.

New York requires students with disabilities to take grade level tests that are far beyond their ability. Some children who literally cannot read are expected to take the same tests as other students of their age.

What purpose does it serve to put these children through this ordeal?

I think of two ways to characterize this behavior on the part of officials: either “educational malpractice” or “child abuse.”

Here is Peter DeWitt’s account:

“Most Special Education Students Couldn’t Read the State ELA Exam

Our special education students had a major issue last week. They couldn’t read the 3rd-5th grade NY State ELA exams they were supposed to complete. The tests are written FAR above the level that most can understand. Our most proficient fifth grade special education students with a Lexile level of 400 had to take an exam with a Lexile level of 700.

Students sat with rigid fists, tears and frustration. Their teachers tried to alleviate their anxiety, although all of this frustration would end up with a 1 or a 2 at best. How couldn’t it? They couldn’t read the exam.

All of this could be equated to taking an exam in a foreign language they have never learned. It had vocabulary they have never seen. They couldn’t sound out the words, and could not ask for help from their teachers. Some of my students could not get past the second word on the 3rd grade exam, which was Tarantula. A few students put their pencils down and wouldn’t budge. Imagine what it must feel like to not be able to read the 2nd word on a 70 minute exam.

Accommodations That Lack Common Sense

Students are classified as special education for numerous reasons (i.e. OHI, LD, etc). Where assessments are concerned, states offer accommodations. In the logic of state education departments, there are students who qualify for time and ½ or double-time so they can take their time through each passage or question. In some cases students are allowed directions read, scribe or passages read. However, some of these accommodations were not allowed for students because the ELA exam is about what students comprehend, and allowing an adult to read it would not give the evaluators a true measure of what students comprehend.

In an interview for the School Administrators Association of N.Y. State (SAANYS) that I did with Commissioner John King, I asked about sending students in to take an exam that they cannot read. Dr. King replied that they require special education students to take on-grade level assessments so the state education department can, “Avoid the scenario where schools essentially are absolved from responsibility for a whole set of students.”

Unfortunately, this is another aspect to accountability. In an effort to make sure that schools do not hide low-performing students under a special education classification so they can boost overall test scores, schools are being forced to make sure that all students take on-grade level exams, even if they cannot read it.

It seems like educational malpractice to force students to sit down and try to take an exam that they cannot possibly read. These students, who in many cases suffer from low self-esteem because of their academic challenges, feel even worse when they sit down to take an exam they can’t read. So they sit there for two hours if they get time and ½ and over 3 hours if they receive double time. In some cases, these students have to eat lunch aside from their general education peers because they missed their original lunch due to their “accommodations.”

What’s worse, is that on the second day of the ELA exam there were two booklets, which had two sets of directions. Given that not all students will finish the first booklet at the same exact time, the directions for both booklets had to be read before both booklets could be completed. This requires students to remember directions for book two that were read 30 to 40 minutes prior to when they opened the booklet.

If you have ever spent time with students between the ages of 8 and 11 you understand that students cannot be read directions for two booklets and be expected to remember those directions 40 minutes later after they finish one section of an exam. We had students put their pencils down and sit there feeling defeated.

True Assessments

The truth is that our special education teachers are some of our most gifted assessors of student progress. They write IEP’s that reflect what a student knows and what a student needs to know the next year. They progress monitor weekly or bi-weekly to make sure their lessons meets the needs of the diverse learning that special education students have.

Special education teachers find value in assessing student progress. Whether it’s through formative assessment or summative assessment, special education teachers assess students with dignity.

The point is for them to use data to drive instruction, not to use it for accountability. In the words of Jonathan Cohen from the National School Climate Center, “Data is being used as a hammer and not as a flashlight,” and the state education department doesn’t seem to care about the social-emotional state of students as they use their hammer.