Special Education

Standards’ Impact for Special Ed. is Weighed

For students who are disabled, guidance brings hurdles and opportunity.
By Christina A. Samuels — September 20, 2010 5 min read

Includes updates and/or revisions.

Special education advocates are greeting the burgeoning common academic standards movement with a mixture of optimism and caution.

Adopted so far by 36 states and the District of Columbia, the common academic standards were developed with the backing of two national groups based in Washington, the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association. The intent of the effort, which is also getting support from federal education officials, is to provide clear guideposts for what students at each grade level should know and be able to do. The standards also offer an opportunity for students covered by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, to have access to the same rigorous coursework that is offered to their peers in general education, the standards writers believe.

But the standards-content creators intentionally have not spelled out how the new curricula should be taught to a student population with a range of physical and cognitive needs. They have made clear, however, that all types of accommodations and supports should be considered that maintain the rigor of the standards.

For example, in the English/language arts standards, the writers note that “reading should allow for the use of Braille, screen-reader technology, or other assistive devices, while writing should include the use of a scribe, computer, or speech-to-text technology. In a similar vein, speaking and listening should be interpreted broadly to include sign language.”

In these early stages, special education groups are trying to figure out just how students with disabilities will be taught and assessed in a standards-based framework.

Finding Common Ground

Several groups have chosen to focus on making sure that their voices are heard in the policy discussions as the standards movement starts to shift from adoption to the more challenging process of implementation. Lindsay Jones, the senior director of policy and advocacy for the Council for Exceptional Children in Arlington, Va., said that her organization was asked to comment on the standards earlier this year, after they were written but before they were released. The CEC suggested “substantial changes” to a document that accompanies the standards, called “Application to Students with Disabilities,” that were all accepted, Ms. Jones said. That two-page document says all students should be given access to the general curriculum, with appropriate supports.

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Joanne Cashman, the director of the IDEA Partnership, a coalition of 55 organizations invested in improving education for students with disabilities, says that her group is working to find common ground among the differing views of its members and to impart those views to the CCSSO and the NGA.

“Across the partner organizations, opinions vary, but in having the conversation together, we can begin to see commonalities and differences in views that transcend roles and affiliations,” Ms. Cashman said.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan specifically brought up students with disabilities earlier this month when he announced the winners of a grant competition to design common assessments.

“Unlike existing assessments, which often retrofit mediocre accommodations into tests, the new assessment systems will be designed, from the start, to accurately assess both English learners and students with disabilities and provide appropriate accommodations,” Mr. Duncan said in a speech.

That promise is exciting to Laura W. Kaloi, the public-policy director for the New York City-based National Center for Learning Disabilities. Her organization is optimistic that the standards will be adopted and lead to united efforts around assessment and test accommodations, she said.

The special attention is needed, Ms. Kaloi said, because currently, “there’s so much variance and so much lack of validity” with assessments for students with disabilities.

‘Not a Small Thing’

While keeping their members in the policy loop, organizations are also turning to professional development around the standards.

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Lynn Boyer, the assistant executive director for professional-development services for the CEC and a former state special education director in West Virginia, predicts that special education teachers will have to be particularly aware of how the standards fit together from year to year.

“The teacher has to be aware of the standards for where the child is—but they also have to be clear on the standards that are appropriate for where the child should be,” Ms. Boyer said. “It’s not a small thing we’re asking of special educators, to learn the standards at all the different grades.”

Ricki Sabia, the chairwoman of the National Universal Design for Learning Task Force and the associate policy director for the National Down Syndrome Society in New York City, said she appreciated seeing language in the standards that reflects the multiple ways students might show their academic skills.

“Kids can go through their whole education, and no one has figured out how to help them communicate what they know,” she said. Placing language that supports universal design for learning in the standards will encourage professional development in that area, she believes.

Children Left Behind?

But while some greet the standards with optimism, others are more wary. Some special educators see the standards-based movement as a recipe for failure for some students.

On the Disability Scoop website, a June 2 post about the release of the common standards prompted one self-identified special education professional to comment, “This makes me want to weep.” Others wrote about what they considered to be unrealistic expectations, particularly for students with severe cognitive impairments.

“We keep trying this ‘one size fits all’ ” approach, said Beverley Holden Johns, an independent educational consultant and chairwoman of the Illinois Special Education Coalition. But such strategies “don’t work and they cannot work,” she said.

“I think it’s important when we’re working with any child that we establish high expectations,” Ms. Johns said. But such expectations can be unreasonable and unrealistic, she said.

But most students covered under the IDEA have disabilities that are unrelated to cognitive function, Ms. Boyer noted. About 40 percent of students with disabilities are classified as having learning disabilities, which are processing disorders that impair learning but not a student’s overall cognitive ability. The second-largest group, at 22 percent, are students with speech and language impairments. The remaining students covered by the IDEA fall into categories that may or may not reflect the presence of cognitive disabilities.

Based on those numbers, Ms. Boyer said, “many more than just a simple majority really should be expected to be at grade level.”

She added, “We have continuing work to do with special education, to really accept that many students with individualized education plans are making progress in ways we never thought that they could.”

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A version of this article appeared in the September 22, 2010 edition of Education Week as Advocates Ponder Standards’ Impact on Special Education

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