Standardized Testing and the Special Needs Student

I love Facebook because so many of my students have contacted me there. One lovely young woman is Julie McIntyre (now Chinni). From 1992-1993, she was a student in my Accelerated Senior English class. She also was in my husband’s high school band beginning in 1989. When I saw her post about her son’s problem with standardized testing, I asked her to tell us about it.

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This is from Julie:

Recently I watched as my thirteen-year-old son crossed the stage and shook hands with the principal after receiving his National Junior Honor Society award. An award based on academic achievement is no small feat for anyone–but especially challenging for him.

His public school education began at three years old when he was diagnosed with a severe speech delay and was enrolled in PPCD (Preschool for Children with Disabilities). Intensive speech therapy began immediately, and occupational therapy soon followed when his classroom teacher noticed he couldn’t hold a pencil or use scissors.

In kindergarten he had an appointment with an Ear, Nose, and Throat doctor (ENT) so he could be fitted with special ear plugs that would block out sounds. Loud noises were so overwhelming for him that he would come completely undone. At that time, the doctor suggested that my five-year-old might have Asperger’s Syndrome. I didn’t know what Asperger’s was at the time, but a quick Google search let me know what we were facing.

From www.webmd.com:

“Asperger’s syndrome is also called Asperger’s disorder, a type of pervasive developmental disorder (PDD). PDDs are a group of conditions that involve delays in the development of many basic skills, most notably the ability to socialize with others, to communicate, and to use imagination.

“Although Asperger’s syndrome is similar in some ways to autism — another, more severe type of PDD — there are some important differences. Children with Asperger’s syndrome typically function better than do those with autism. In addition, children with Asperger’s syndrome generally have normal intelligence and near-normal language development, although they may develop problems communicating as they get older.

From Julie:

A trip to a Pediatric Neurologist confirmed what the ENT suspected. The official diagnosis never bothered me. I remember driving home after hearing it and thinking, “He’s still the same kid he was before the diagnosis. He’s no different now.” What the diagnosis did accomplish was provide services and accommodations for my son that he wouldn’t have received otherwise.

As a family, we found our footing and readjusted to life with a child who is considered to have special needs. Fast forward a few years to when my son had to start taking standardized state tests. By this time in his life the rigidity in his thoughts and general anxiety had become a daily struggle. Throw in the pressure of passing a standardized test, and meltdowns became expected.

My son never fits inside the box that the State of Texas Board of Education tries to put him in. The board members never asked his teachers about his learning style or any nuances that make my son who he is. They didn’t wait patiently at the classroom door as he pushed all the chairs neatly into their desks, help him tie his shoes in third grade because he was still struggling with fine motor skills, or talk him out of a meltdown in fifth grade because it was raining in the morning before school and he got wet.

They also didn’t watch him fall in love with books or see me watch in wonder with my mouth open when I realized he has a photographic (or eidetic) memory. The Board of Education only sees a standard set of questions that they believe anyone in any given grade level should be able to answer correctly. And to ensure that the schools buy into their belief, they base the schools’ funding on the test scores.

So what happens then? What happens when the superintendent pressures the principals to make sure the students pass this standardized test? What happens when the principals turn to the teachers and put stress on them to teach their students to pass a single test? I can answer that. I can tell you that the teachers then put pressure on the students, stressing the importance of one single test to the already stressed-out students.

One test, written by people who are sometimes not educators, written by people who do not know the children on a personal basis–people who sit in government offices and decide what our children should know based upon some arbitrary standard.

And what does that do to someone like my son, who already deals with anxiety? It pushes him over the edge. He is already defeated before he ever walks into the classroom to put his name on a bubble sheet. He already believes he is going to fail because so much emphasis has been put on this one test that he can’ t possibly put it into perspective and see it for what it is–one test.

One test doesn’t measure how kind he is, how talented he is, how funny he is, or how smart he is. One test. So when those failing test scores get mailed to my house a few weeks later, his self-fulfilling prophecy of failure just embeds a little deeper into his psyche.

As all the parents sat crammed into the gymnasium with our chests puffed up in pride while we watched our children get acknowledged for all of their hard work in and out of the classroom at the NJHS ceremony, I felt pride. But I also felt vindicated.

My son is kind, and talented, and funny, and smart. There is not a test that any lawmaker can mandate that will prove otherwise.

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After I read what Julie wrote, my heart went out to her and her son.

Lately I have been hearing teachers say that the state standards are moving concepts that were once taught in fifth grade down to the third-grade level, based on testing requirements. We are using a model-T production business model to govern our schools, in hopes that we can cram more and more into the heads of young people.

Unfortunately the result we achieve is more likely to be what Lucy and Ethel experienced when they were wrapping chocolates on an assembly line, with the supervisor yelling, “Speed it up.” Teachers end up having to move on to the next lesson before the majority of students have mastered the current one. Then we act surprised when they fail. We are the ones who are failing them.

If an athlete is failing to succeed at the pole jump, do we say, “We’ll set the bar higher. Just try harder.” I think not.

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