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LD and Standardized Testing
Q: My son is currently enrolled in the eighth grade in Fairfax County, Virginia. He was identified as having learning disabilities early on in grade school (Grade 1). Recently Virginia has implemented a standard of learning test program to ensure quality of education throughout the state. My son must pass these tests to gain a high-school diploma. He seems very worried about these tests and his ability to pass them. Although I have not voiced those same concerns to him, I too am very concerned about his chances for success. My concerns have been heightened after having had the opportunity to take a sample SOL test for eighth-graders.
Is there any research that has been done on the effect of these high impact/serious consequence type tests or evaluations on the learning disabled student? What are your suggestions in helping a learning disabled student prepare and cope with such pressures? And are there any resources that I, as a parent, can leverage against and use to get my son by this critical hurdle?
A: This is one of the toughest issues that parents, teachers, and educational administrators face today. The national trend toward increasing standards is affecting children and teachers at all levels, and is generating a particularly strong response from parents of children with learning disabilities.
The problem is that we are in the midst of two relatively incompatible trends in education. On one hand, teachers are just starting to understand the importance of varying instructional and evaluative styles to meet the needs of students who learn differently, and who produce evidence of learning in different ways. IEPs are full of recommendations for "reasonable modifications" in both instructional strategies and materials to make learning accessible to all kinds of learners. This isn't about lowering standards either; this is about federal law mandating what I call "curb cuts" into the curriculum to make it accessible to students who need another way to interact with schoolwork in order to be successful.
On the other hand, all children, including those with learning disabilities, are expected to demonstrate competence as it's narrowly defined by the format of the standardized tests. This doesn't make a lot of sense. For example, some tests claim to measure reading comprehension by asking a student to write a paragraph explaining the passage. Also, tests tend to increase a person's anxiety level, especially when the stakes are high. There is research that shows that kids with LD get more anxious than other kids on certain kinds of tests and that this anxiety has a greater impact on LD kids than it does on their non-disabled friends. We also know that some kids with LD lack the meta-cognitive skills to discover the "key" to solving certain kinds of test problems, but that given the opportunity, can demonstrate the skill or knowledge called for on the test. I have worked with kids who have responded to the impending tests by saying things like: "I give up -- what's the use? I'm going to flunk it anyway, so I might as well check out." This undoes all we have been working for.
IDEA '97 makes special mention about assessments. The Federal law states that, "Children with disabilities are [to be] included in general State and district-wide assessment programs, with appropriate accommodations and modifications...," and it mandates that "the State or LEA develop guidelines...in alternate assessments for those...who cannot participate..." This process is supposed to begin no later than July 1, 2000. The individual states are given a lot of flexibility in the way this provision is interpreted, and people are working together to come up with acceptable guidelines. The key is to find out who is doing this in your state, and join in this effort. Unless parents and students join politicians in this task, the outcome will not be good for students with learning disabilities. If you want to bolster your child's self esteem and sense of empowerment, get him and his buddies involved in this battle. It will raise their consciousness and develop self-advocacy skills that will last a lifetime.
In the meantime, your child should have the same kinds of accommodations on standardized state tests that he is afforded in school, as dictated by his IEP. If this does not happen, contact your state's Office of Civil Rights and ask for guidance and advocacy.
I can't close without pointing out a reality that most folks in the field admit to with a guilty gulp. Over the years, one of the most common "accommodations" for kids with disabilities has been to make things easier for them. When we have done this, we have done these kids a disservice. Part of what's happening in this standards debate is that we've been caught with our bar down, and we're paying the price. The key to good special education is to keep it special (use techniques supported by research) and keep the expectations high. So increasing standards is a good thing. Forcing kids to jump over inappropriate hurdles is not.
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Jerome (Jerry) Schultz is the founding clinical director of the Learning Lab @ Lesley University, a program that provides assessment, tutoring, and case management services for children with learning challenges. Schultz holds a Ph.D. from Boston College, and has completed postdoctoral fellowships in both clinical psychology and pediatric neuropsychology.