A Wise Investment Before We Test

An artist once observed that the creation of a museum to showcase creative works was, at once, "straightforwardly simple, but maddeningly complex." So, too, it is for politicians and practitioners in the arena of education when policy in theory must serpentine its inevitable way to policy in practice.

Pity the U.S. Congress and the Administration's Department of Education. The pending reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)/No Child Left Behind and recent efforts to reform the regulatory provisions of the ESEA and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act have spawned new opportunities and challenges to forge and reconcile statutory and regulatory language, especially in the arena of student assessment.

The exercise now upon the Feds, and the States that inevitably must comply, is a daunting one. The testing of student outcomes is, as the nation has learned, a substantive "third rail" for many reasons. It is, however, of paramount concern to the group that historically has had much to lose in the politics and process of standardized student-outcome assessments: children, youth, and young adults with disabilities.

It is reasonable for the average citizen to think that after 40 or 50 years, even allowing for the natural course of reform, our public leaders would get it right. (The Federal statute (ESEA) upon which No Child Left behind took flight was enacted in 1965 as part of the Great Society; the foundations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) were legislated in 1975.) Yet, if we are to interpret the many voices of concern and dissent from parents, practitioners, advocates, and legislators alike, when it comes to student outcome assessment, time has not healed.

Whenever I think about Federal and State oversight of the education of students with disabilities, I think about public promises: laws, regulations, and guidelines that can unfold as maddeningly simple panaceas for dealing with a matter that is straightforwardly complex: education for the holistic development of the human child. It is in this context that I am haunted by the words of Gerald R. Ford upon signing the precursor to the IDEA in 1975:

"I have approved S. 6 (ibid, the first special education legislation that ultimately served as the foundation for the IDEA.... this bill promises more than the Federal Government can deliver... Unfortunately, these requirements will remain in effect even though the Congress appropriates far less than the amounts contemplated in S. 6."

What is the inevitable consequence of laws that promise more than they are resourced to deliver? Let's fast-forward 40 years, to the observations offered by a teacher in the context of the U.S. Department of Education's proposed regulatory changes to the student assessment provisions of the ESEA and IDEA. As reported by the Washington Post, "Jean" opined:

"This idea is lovely and important... However, this (ibid, the inclusion of a larger proportion of students with disabilities in a state's testing pool) is not a teacher problem. This is a resource problem and a timeline problem. I am a reading teacher who serves about 50 percent kids with IEPs. These students need resources and they need extra time... We make them take these tests that tell them "you're in the bottom 10 percent . . . Again." This makes them hate school and the very process that's trying to change what they've learned."

Trust Jean, and the hundreds of families that approach the college that employs me, the first accredited baccalaureate institution exclusively devoted to undergraduates with LD, ADHD, and other learning differences. Their testimony is quite consistent, many times chronicled with the raw emotion of those who have fought the good fight for the resources to which their sons and daughters are entitled under law. Both students and parents suspect that they have been shortchanged in the translation of statute and regulation (the promise) into practice (the reality of available resources and expertise).

Public school districts are caught in the middle, it seems; but, after 40 years of Federal protections and associated State-level mandates, many parents are indignant, justifiably, about what has been wrought by the continued underfunded and chronically under-resource special education system. Nowhere, I believe, has this frustration been more painfully or eloquently expressed than in one mother's comments following a disabilityscope.com article entitled, New Rule Ends 'Modified' Tests For Students With Disabilities:

"I have a daughter that has NLD (nonverbal learning disability). She is in 9th grade. Public school in all of her years attended have been pure HELL. There's really no other word to describe it. The system has failed her in so many ways year after year. This is the second week of school; she missed one day because we stayed up until 2 a.m. doing homework. Yesterday she came home so overwhelmed with a headache and crying and saying she's stupid. I homeschooled her last year but we really made no progress as far as learning from curriculum, so I focused on life skills and building her self esteem, which is now back to zero!!! I'm so frustrated I could loose my mind! There's no help, no support, no hope. There's an ignored IEP and a child that is lost in the school system. How is my child going to make it in this life? That's the hardest thing for a mom to deal with! They need to come visit me and see what a real child with learning disabilities go through. Not sitting in a meeting and just coming up with new laws, and having NO clue what's really going on! I'm so hurt, frustrated, and frankly disgusted with the school system."

Students with disabilities confront daily an "island" of challenge. The Congressional intent in enacting civil rights legislation like the IDEA, with its mandated services and safeguards, was to afford students who require specialized support the greatest opportunity to work around and through their "island" of challenge so that it would not be mistaken for or become the defining landscape of their lives. It is a noble and worthy goal, straightforwardly simple, but maddeningly complex and, as a generation of parents and teachers of many students will attest, frustratingly unequalto the promise.

Fortunately, our values and national ethos with respect to individuals with disabilities have not changed; regrettably, it appears, neither has our willingness to sufficiently finance our public promises to them. And this is where debates about mandates and student assessments come in.

What outcomes are we truly measuring in the standardized statewide test performance of students who learn differently? Can we really expect that a chronically under-resourced system will produce results in which we all can take satisfaction and assurance? I think not.

At the level of the individual, the assessment of students is an essential component of any meaningful educational process. It provides crucial snapshots of student learning and progress. It further provides critical developmental information as whither a student's schooling should proceed. However, at the macro-level, where the current NCLB debates about student assessment tend to reside, I am hard pressed see that further reforms to State-administered outcome assessments will make any discernable difference in the lives of the actual test-takers. It is not so much a question of the instruments that experts fashion to measure performance, it's about the test-taker and his or her prior learning experience. It's about promises, and resources, and the consequences of lost opportunities.

In an accountable world, there is a common understanding of the need for statewide testing. But such evaluations and assessments have never been particularly friendly turf for students with special needs and their parents. It is in this light among many others that I believe parents and teachers will be best served by requesting that Federal and State decision-makers re-balance their systemic policy focus and resources on "meat before measurement."