Special Report
Special Education

A Common-Core Challenge: Learners With Special Needs

By Catherine Gewertz — October 28, 2013 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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


English-Language Learners Webinar Helping English-Learners Through Improved Parent Outreach: Strategies That Work
Communicating with families is key to helping students thrive – and that’s become even more apparent during a pandemic that’s upended student well-being and forced constant logistical changes in schools. Educators should pay particular attention
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Mathematics Webinar
Addressing Unfinished Learning in Math: Providing Tutoring at Scale
Most states as well as the federal government have landed on tutoring as a key strategy to address unfinished learning from the pandemic. Take math, for example. Studies have found that students lost more ground
Content provided by Yup Math Tutoring
Classroom Technology Webinar Building Better Blended Learning in K-12 Schools
The pandemic and the increasing use of technology in K-12 education it prompted has added renewed energy to the blended learning movement as most students are now learning in school buildings (and will likely continue

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Special Education Florida Changed Rules for Special Education Students. Why Many Say It’s Wrong
The new rule contains a more specific definition of what it means to have a “most significant cognitive disability.”
Jeffrey S. Solochek, Tampa Bay Times
7 min read
Richard Corcoran, the Commissioner of the Florida Department of Education sits next to Florida Department of Education Board Chair Andy Tuck as they listen to speakers during Thursday morning's Florida Department of Education meeting. The board members of the Florida Department of Education met Thursday, June 10, 2021 at the Florida State College at Jacksonville's Advanced Technology Center in Jacksonville, Fla. to take care of routine business but then held public comments before a vote to remove critical race theory from Florida classrooms.
Richard Corcoran, Florida’s education commissioner, and Andy Tuck, the chair of the state’s board of education, listen to speakers at a meeting  in June.
Bob Self/The Florida Times-Union via AP
Special Education 6 Ways to Communicate Better With Parents of Students With Learning Differences
For students who learn or think differently, a strong network of support is key. Here are 6 tips for bridging the communication gap between families and schools.
Marina Whiteleather
3 min read
network of quote bubbles
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Special Education Whitepaper
4 Ways to Support Students at Risk for Dyslexia
Read this white paper: Dyslexia Screening and the Use of Acadience™ Reading and discover four distinct ways educators can improve student...
Content provided by Voyager Sopris Learning
Special Education New York City Will Phase Out Controversial Gifted and Talented Program
The massive change is aimed at addressing racial disparities in the biggest school system in the country.
Michael Elsen-Rooney, New York Daily News
4 min read
Students write and draw positive affirmations on poster board at P.S. 5 Port Morris, an elementary school in The Bronx borough of New York on Aug. 17, 2021. New York City will phase out its program for gifted and talented students that critics say favors whites and Asian American students, while enrolling disproportionately few Black and Latino children, in the nation's largest and arguably most segregated school system.
Students write and draw positive affirmations on poster board at P.S. 5 Port Morris, an elementary school in The Bronx borough of New York on Aug. 17, 2021. New York City will phase out its program for gifted and talented students that critics say favors whites and Asian American students, while enrolling disproportionately few Black and Latino children, in the nation's largest and arguably most segregated school system.
Brittainy Newman/AP