The Forgotten Ones?

Educators worry that standards-setters are ignoring students with special needs

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As the national push to set high academic standards and create a related system of student assessments continues to gain momentum, educators such as Frances Collins are increasingly worried about a group of children they fear will be left behind.

At Collins’ elementary school in Prince George's County, Md., these children include immigrant students with a poor command of English, moderately disabled students for whom most academic study is a struggle, and some students whose disabilities are so severe that merely learning to dress themselves becomes an educational goal. Altogether, such students make up nearly 40 percent of the students at Oxon Hill Elementary School, where Collins is the principal.

How, she wonders, will these students be able to meet rigorous new academic standards? And if tests are developed to reflect the standards, should those pupils take them along with their other classmates? “It is no more reasonable to expect every child to be on grade level than it is to expect every 2nd grader to be 2 feet, 9 inches,” Collins argues.

Around the country, educators and advocates who work with the nation's 4.8 million disabled students and 6.3 million limited-English-proficient students are asking the same kinds of questions. While education reformers and federal officials have repeatedly stressed that national or state standards should be for all students, many teachers and advocates for disabled and LEP students say they wonder if the rhetoric is outdistancing the reality. “If ‘all’ really does mean ‘all,’ it would seem to me someone would be thinking a little more deeply or commenting a little more precisely on how they expect all students to meet the standards,” says Richard Allington, a reading education professor at the State University of New York at Albany. “Maybe what they mean is ‘practically all.’“

These educators fear that, aside from a general nod to the inclusion of all students, those who are disabled or limited in their command of English will be largely an afterthought to the standards and assessments movement. And, they contend, a lack of attention to these children at this early stage in the standards setting process could have harmful implications for them later on.

For their part, officials involved in the drive for a national system of standards and assessments say they are mindful of such concerns and will work to ensure that no children are left out. “For the longest time, we have excluded both categories of kids [disabled and LEP] from most testing programs, and our expectations for them may have been too low,” says Michael Cohen, an aide to U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley.

The New Standards Project, an ongoing effort by 19 states and six school districts to develop an examination system based on high academic standards, also subscribes to the philosophy that high standards should apply to all students. The project has appointed a committee to study equity issues, and it encourages teachers to adopt alternative methods when necessary to determine students' abilities.

The movement to set high standards for what students should know and be able to do in school was officially launched at the national level at the 1989 education summit between President Bush and the nation's governors. Among the six national education goals set in the wake of that meeting, one called for students to meet “world class” standards in five core academic subjects.

The federal government is now helping support efforts to set voluntary standards in seven subjects: the arts, civics, English, foreign languages, geography, history, and science. National standards are being developed, or have already been developed, in five other subject areas, as well. Moreover, a number of states have set curriculum standards and are beginning to test how well their students are meeting them. Standards-setting is also a centerpiece of President Clinton's “Goals 2000” school-improvement proposal, now pending in Congress. Almost from the beginning, the architects of the standards movement have said standards are for everyone. “When we say ‘all,’ we really do mean ‘all,’“ Secretary Riley reiterated during a national gathering of special educators in April.

Yet, of all the projects that are setting national standards in specific subjects, only two so far have recognized disabled students in any explicit way, according to researchers at the National Center on Educational Outcomes, which is tracking the standards efforts. The science standards project, in response to concerns that no disabled scientists were on the national panel overseeing the project, has formed a focus group of scientists with disabilities to offer advice. And the English standards project recruited a representative from the Council for Exceptional Children, a national group that serves disabled and gifted students, for its board of directors.

A few of the standards projects have representatives on their boards from groups serving non-English-speaking populations, such as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. But advocates for LEP students contend that the needs of students whose first language is not English have not yet been directly addressed. “I look at all of the standards projects funded by the Department of Education and I wonder, ‘When are they going to start thinking about language-minority and limited-English-proficient kids?’” says Denise McKeon, chairwoman of a task force formed by the organization Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.

Education reformers say the omissions, for the most part, have been neither deliberate nor inadvertent. Disabled and LEP students “were not left out in the sense that no one was paying attention to them and that this was an elitist model,” says Martin Orland, director of the National Education Goals Panel. “It’s just that I don't think we have focused yet on the nuts and bolts of how to do it.”

Student advocates and education reformers alike concede that the “nuts and bolts” question is extraordinarily difficult. There is a fear among some, for example, that standards would have to be “watered down” to accommodate special populations. “That’s something that has to be kept in mind just as the needs of the disability group has to be kept in mind,” Orland says.

Advocates for disabled and LEP students say “watering down” is definitely not what they have in mind. But they worry that the added pressure of “high stakes” testing may prompt some school administrators to look for ways to prevent students who might not perform well on the tests from taking them. This, these advocates warn, could lead to the further isolation of such students from the rest of the school program. “You're going to see attention move away from the whole notion of inclusion and integration for disabled children,” says Margaret McLaughlin, director of the National Center for Policy Options at the University of Maryland.

Beyond issues of testing, special educators and teachers who work with language-minority students say the standards-setting movement could also have implications for the kinds of teaching strategies used with such children in the classroom. While some of the standards being developed so far focus entirely on spelling out what students need to know, others have fused both content and teaching strategy. The standards already developed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, for example, favor an approach to teaching that encourages students to come to their own conclusions about math through the use of manipulatives and hands-on activities.

The problem, according to some researchers, is that such an approach may not work for all students. “You can't have a committee dictate one way of learning,” says Douglas Carnine, director of the National Center to Improve the Tools of Educators, based at the University of Oregon. “[Some students] often benefit from a more teacher-directed approach. They may need more organized application and review of the material, and they often benefit from being shown how to use strategies and information in a more explicit way.”

To some extent, all these concerns are beginning to generate responses from education reformers and federal officials. Researchers from the National Center on Educational Outcomes, for example, drafted language describing ways to accommodate disabled students for the legislative report slated to accompany President Clinton's Goals 2000 bill. The language suggests, says James Ysseldyke, the center's director, that no standards be approved unless “there's a clear indication that they're for all kids and there's a clear indication that all kids with disabilities are going to be accommodated.”

In addition, at least two states—Kentucky and Maryland—have begun to grapple with ways to include more disabled students in their student testing programs. Schools in both states are now required to report how many students are excluded and to show why they are excluded. And special educators and test-developers are working on an alternative, portfolio-based test for students whose disabilities make it unrealistic for them to take part in the regular testing program.

But even with some promising approaches, the efforts to ensure the inclusion of all students in the emerging system of national standards and assessments face a difficult road. “There's clearly a greater awareness of the need to accommodate kids with disabilities,” Ysseldyke says, “but there's also a whole lot of frustration surrounding that.”

Most agree that educators working with disabled and LEP students need to be part of the national discussion on standards and assessments, even if they have no definite strategy to offer. In the end, McLaughlin of the University of Maryland says, if disabled and LEP children “cannot participate in new high stakes standards, then what else is there for them?”

Vol. 04, Issue 09, Pages 14-15

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