Special Report
Special Education

A Common-Core Challenge: Learners With Special Needs

By Catherine Gewertz — October 28, 2013 6 min read
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If the old adage is true—that a society can be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable citizens—then putting the common standards into practice carries the specter of a judgment about educational opportunity in the United States.

In millions of classrooms across the country, educators are working to design lesson plans for students that will, in most places, represent a step up in academic expectations.

In English/language arts, for instance, it will come as a shock to many high school students when they’re asked to read several challenging texts and compose an argument that cites evidence from those texts. In mathematics, many students are expected to struggle when asked to describe how they reached a solution to a problem, or to apply their math understanding to real-world problems.

Designing such lessons for the typical student is tough enough for teachers; adapting them to children at wildly varied points on the skills spectrum is tougher still.

Meeting the needs of students with disabilities, those learning English, those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and gifted students is a challenge that goes to the core of education’s purpose, however. And it’s a challenge that is largely unmet, more than two years after every state but four adopted the standards.

Stakes Are High

How well educators manage to adjust the common core to the needs of each student could prove pivotal scholastically, but also politically, as the standards themselves face skepticism in the states. How well students are able to meet those expectations could affect not only their own academic progress, but judgments on their teachers’ and schools’ performance, and on the standards themselves and the tests that measure them.

“It is a major issue, from an equity perspective: the extent to which we can demonstrate, as a nation and a society, that we can use the standards to actually help lift achievement across the full spectrum of students,” said Sonja Brookins Santelises, the vice president of K-12 policy and practice at Education Trust, a Washington-based group that pushes for policies that improve schooling for disadvantaged students. “Those at the low end are crucial. But if it’s only about increasing that bottom band, then it’s not all kids.”

How well assessments reflect the special needs of the students who sit down at computers nationwide to take them in 2015 will be manifested in the results. Educators are already bracing for a drop in the scores of students without special needs, so the mission of making the tests accessible for subgroups such as children with disabilities has taken on an added urgency in two multistate consortia that are designing the general tests for the standards: the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC.

‘Universal’ Testing

The two groups are building their tests according to the principles of “universal design,” which incorporate students’ special needs from the beginning, rather than making a test that must be retrofitted. They’re building in tactile graphics, closed captioning, text-to-speech readers, and pop-up glossaries that display translations.

But even such built-in accommodations might not be enough for some students, who are used to assistive technologies that might not dovetail well with the consortium tests. Advocates for special-needs students worry that those children’s test performance could be compromised if they’re not allowed to use the supports they’re accustomed to.

An area of particular controversy in the test design has been the decision to permit, with conditions, using the “read-aloud accommodation.” Allowing passages to be read to visually impaired students undermines the measurement of some English/language arts skills, some argue. But that leaves special educators with a dilemma: how to gauge their students’ reading progress on the new standards?

We explore those and other assessment issues in this report about bringing the common standards to special populations. We also take a look at a few issues bedeviling common-core instruction for special groups.

Creating individualized education programs, or IEPs, for instance, grew more challenging when the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act made it clear that teachers must expose their special education students to the same academic standards as their peers. But the common core has made writing those “standards-based IEPs” even tougher, advocates say. Teams must scrutinize the standards to set grade-appropriate goals their students should reach. Those academic goal posts, however, feel far away to those tasked with teaching special educators how to fuse the common core into lesson plans.

Teachers of students learning English face unique challenges with the advent of the common core. Among them are the expectations that students be able to engage in meaningful debate and discourse with their peers in all the content areas, even when their English is still developing, as well as acquire the “academic language” unique to each discipline. That’s foreign enough for children who grew up speaking English; for those still learning the language, it’s a daunting new expectation.

Teacher Roles Broaden

The new cross-disciplinary literacy expectations of the standards pose challenges for teachers of English-language learners, as well. New kinds of collaboration are needed to help teachers of all subjects learn techniques to impart their content to students with a limited command of English. The report looks at a middle school in Oregon where an unusually close collaboration draws on the expertise of the school’s English-as-a-second-language teacher to help its math and science teachers make their content accessible to ELLs.

Gifted students, whose advocates have long complained that they’re an afterthought in school policy and practice, carry challenges of their own in the common-core era. Teachers of advanced learners say the standards lend themselves well to higher-level instruction. Yet they worry that teachers don’t understand well enough how to differentiate their instruction to get the most out of the new standards. And they fear that more-capable learners won’t get the focus they need, as teachers funnel more energy into helping the lower-achieving students.

Rhetoric around teaching the common core often points to the standards’ promise for those students most in need of deeper, more rigorous study. But for some educators, conversations about how to fulfill that promise have stalled at a frustratingly abstract level.

Ms. Santelises, who recently oversaw common-core implementation as the chief academic officer in the Baltimore schools, said it’s crucial for educators to have frank discussions about the nitty-gritty work of building the supports at home and in classrooms that will enable teachers to help their special-needs students master the new academic expectations.

“Unless we take seriously the implementation challenges, then [the common core] will have a minimum impact,” she said. “Honesty goes a long way—like being honest about the fact that there is no silver bullet with which to move a student who’s three or four years behind grade level to a standard that is now two to three years above the one they’re currently not meeting. Those are the elephants in the room, the discussions that policy and practitioners have to be willing to have.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 30, 2013 edition of Education Week as A Common Core for Everyone


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