Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Problems of Standardizing an Individualized Education

This past summer, the U.S. Department of Education announced an overhaul to the evaluation metrics used to judge the effectiveness of special education programs for students with disabilities who receive services through an Individualized Education Program (IEP). In announcing the new accountability framework, dubbed Results-Driven Accountability (RDA), Secretary Arne Duncan repeated the oft-heard rhetoric behind other accountability-based policy shifts under his tenure, saying, “We know that when students with disabilities are held to high expectations and have access to the general curriculum in the regular classroom, they excel. We must be honest about student performance, so that we can give all students the supports and services they need to succeed.” Of course, “being honest” entails evaluations based on standardized test results, including state assessments and the NAEP.

The problem with this, according to many experts in the field of special education, is that standardized tests like the NAEP are horribly inaccurate measures of learning outcomes for students with disabilities and often produce more negative consequences than they seek to resolve. IEPs are developed based on a student’s individual developmental and skill level by a team composed of the student, parents, teachers, and special education service providers. They are developed after taking into account multiple perspectives and assessments tailored to the individual student. The student then spends the next year progressing towards goals crafted to develop her individual academic needs. To then judge the effectiveness of the academic program working towards meeting those needs through a test that takes none of the students individual needs into account, and is instead standardized and administered by grade level, makes absolutely no sense.

Supporters of standardized testing adopt the language of disability rights advocates in arguing that exempting students with disabilities from the same tests their peers are taking for no other reason than the student’s disability status is discriminatory. Testing proponents point to studies claiming that excluding students with disabilities from standardized testing has the effect of increasing overrepresentation as school staff push low-performing students into special education to shield their school from the negative consequences of test-based accountability (for examples of this body of research, see here, here, here, and here). These arguments, however, miss the point entirely. Testing advocates misappropriate research that is an indictment of test-based accountability to serve their cause. The research cited above does not conclude that excluding students with disabilities is unjust, but rather that test-based accountability schemes create perverse incentives to further marginalize students who do not perform well on tests. There is no evidence this marginalization of low-performing students will end by forcing students with disabilities to take these tests and then judging their teachers based on the results. Further, recent attempts to compel students with profound disabilities to take standardized tests exemplify how “disrespectful” the process can be.  

The pushback against RDA should not been seen as an argument against measuring learning outcomes for students with disabilities. Instead, the argument here is for individualized assessments tailored to the goals in a student’s IEP, which is something that a standardized test is incapable of doing. If the concern is improving the education of students with disabilities, then the focus should be placed on addressing teacher shortages that help create illegal caseload sizes in many states, making sure schools––especially charter schools––are providing a continuum of services, and improving professional development so more students have access to evidence based supports, amongst other urgent areas of need. However, to proceed in this way would be to admit there are at least some areas where standardized tests are inappropriate and ineffective, and many of the barriers to student learning have nothing to do with being held to “high standards” and access to a rigorous curriculum tied to state or federal assessments, as Secretary Duncan claims. Such an admission and reversal of policy can serve as a demonstration that the current administration sees improving the education for all students as more important than an unwavering adherence to neoliberal orthodoxy.

by Ian Scott

Ian Scott is a PhD student in the program on Education Policy and Social Outcomes. His research interests center on the impact of incentivist and market-based education reforms on special education programs and access to mental health services in schools. His work attempts to answer broader questions about how social perceptions of difference are legislated, problems of distributional politics, and the political economy of education.

The Forum on the Future of Public Education strives to bring the best empirical evidence to policymakers and the public. The Forum draws on a network of premier scholars to create, interpret, and disseminate credible information on key questions facing P-20 education.