Special Education Solutions in the Age of NCLB
The No Child Left Behind Act specifies schools' responsibilities for including special education students in their overall assessment programs. These students must be assessed under a standardized test that is used for all students within a district - a test that is designed to show whether a student is meeting that state's standards for learning. Schools nationwide are now struggling with how to meet the requirements of NCLB for special education students without excluding them from realistic assessments and/or negatively impacting their educational progression.
Connecting Assessment With Instruction
Special education administrators and teachers have been required for many years to conduct a battery of assessments to qualify a student for special education. These tests directly relate to a student's Individual Education Plan (IEP) and schools have been, or should be, conducting yearly re-evaluations of the IEP. With NCLB, schools are now required to have special education students take high-stakes state tests and include their scores in the AYP reports that they must submit.
Schools may develop alternative assessments for students with the most cognitive delays. However, it is those students who are not allowed to take these alternative tests who are often excluded from real educational success because of their inabilities to take a standardized test. These students are often referred to as "gap" students.
While NCLB mandates are holding teachers more accountable for instruction that works, they have caused even more paperwork for special education teachers. For instance, screening assessments are recommended for all students at the beginning of each school year, while dynamic assessments - those embedded in instruction - are recommended throughout the school year. Teachers are also asked to keep a systematic record of how individual students perform. This information is then used to tailor and shape instruction to the needs of children in a class. This additional paperwork takes away instructional time when it is needed most, which causes a cycle of failure for both the teacher and the student.
By using criterion-referenced diagnostic and screening programs, especially those with technology-based management systems, teachers can plan instruction by pinpointing where a student's strengths and weaknesses are, thereby connecting assessment with instruction. Teachers who can address students' specific skill weaknesses can prove their time on task with students; thus, answering the accountability questions that arise.
Divide and Conquer
According to a publication titled "No Child Left Behind: Using Data to Influence Classroom Decisions" from the U.S. Department of Education: "Research shows that teachers who use student test performance to guide and improve their teaching are more effective than teachers who do not use such information." While being able to teach to students' individual weaknesses is a goal of every educator, this is almost always difficult to do with the number and levels of students in any given classroom. By using a technology-based management system for screening and diagnostic assessment, educators can aggregate and disaggregate data so as to make data-driven decisions about entire groups of students, as well as for each student's education. This can help divide and conquer areas of difficulty for the majority of students.
Fortunately, there are quality instructional tools in the market that are used in differentiated instruction situations to assess reading weaknesses and target specific strategy instruction for students. These types of programs can help students reinforce their reading strategies while improving their comprehension. They also allow teachers to target specific skills, as well as help teachers quickly build instruction for their students' needs.
What I find interesting in this age of NCLB is that mainstream teachers are adopting special education approaches for teaching to students' areas of weakness, while special education teachers struggle with helping their students succeed on standardized tests given to mainstream students. While the individualized approach is helping mainstream students succeed, there have not been solutions that special education teachers can adopt in helping with the issues surrounding standardized testing.
Curriculum Associates Inc.
This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2004 issue of THE Journal.