Sunday LeftoversSeptember 27, 2009
Chris Christie Has Posted Rebuttals to Corzine’s SlapsSeptember 29, 2009
Let us build a law that demands real accountability tied to growth and gain in the classroom – rather than utopian goals – a law that encourages educators to work with children at every level – and not just the ones near the middle who can be lifted over the bar of proficiency with minimal effort. That’s not education. That’s game-playing tied to bad tests with the wrong goals.
That’s Arne Duncan speaking Friday to a crowd at the U.S. Department of Education on his priorities for fixing No Child Left Behind, the federal legislation that measures student learning and is intended to provide accountability for our nation’s schools. Key phrase: “utopian goals,” a hint that the Obama Administration intends to back off the pie-in-the-sky idea that every child in America will reach proficiency in language arts, math, and science by 2014.
NCLB has been a great tool for focusing on our achievement gap between poor students and wealthy students. 100% proficiency is another matter entirely, especially when that goal includes children with developmental disabilities. It’s like demanding that a kid in a wheelchair should run a mile at the same rate as a child with full use of his legs, or that a child with a hearing impairment pass an auditory assessment.
Okay. It’s not quite that stark. There are children with certain disabilities – Asperger’s Syndrome, for a trendy example – who are intellectually gifted in spite of social delays. And we can provide cognitively-disabled children with all sorts of accommodations on state assessments: more time, people to read questions to them, as many breaks as they need, augmentative technology, etc. It’s wonderful that NCLB has forced schools to focus on the academic needs of children classified as eligible for special education. But is it educationally sound to insist that a 9th grader functioning at the intellectual level of a 5th grader take a 9th grade-level test? A small proportion of children with developmental delays are allowed to hand in portfolio-type assessments (estimated to take per child per subject about 80 teaching hours). But after a district hits that percentage (usually about 2% of its most disabled students), the rest are subjected to the standard assessment. For many of these children the ordeal is traumatic and frustrating. Yet NCLB, true to its utopian ideals, sanctions schools that educate students who will never make the cut.
Here’s an example. Edison Public School District in Middlesex County has two high schools: – J.P. Stevens High School and Edison High School. The former has passed all 41 requirements of No Child Left Behind. The latter passed 40 out of 41 because it missed the cut-off in language arts for special education students, It’s now in its second year of a School In Need of Improvement (SINI). The result is that high schoolers at Edison have the option of transferring to J.P. Stevens.
How different are the two high schools? Not much. (Here’s the DOE data.) J.P. Stevens has about 170 more kids. They both boast good HSPA scores, though Edison’s are slightly worse. The demographics are different: J.P. Stevens is in the more affluent north side of town and 39.8% of the kids learned English as their first language. 15.8% have Gujarti as their first language, 12.4% learned Mandarin, and 5.1% learned Hindi first. At Edison High, 56.6% are native English speakers and 11.9% are native Hispanic speakers. But here’s a key difference: at J.P. Stevens, 7.4% are eligible for special education services and at Edison High it’s 13.3%.
This discrepancy probably accounts for Edison High’s failure to meet NCLB requirements for Adequate Yearly Progress in special education. While it’s refreshing to let students choose high schools in a state that locks its kids into tiny districts, it’s for all the wrong reasons. High standards for all children — developmentally delayed or not — is a good thing. Utopian standards are another matter entirely.