Why does everything we do right for students with disabilities disappear on testing day?

Briana began the school year reading at “level E,” where a first grader should be in September. By November, she had progressed to “level G.” At the end of the year she reached “level J,” the benchmark for a second grader.

Briana achieved a year’s worth of progress for a year’s worth of teaching, and increased her confidence along the way. But her test results told a different story.

You see, Briana is not a first grader. She is a third-grade student with a learning disability.

She learns in a special education classroom and has an Individualized Education Program. Briana’s IEP ensures that she has access to the general education curriculum with plenty of support — differentiated instruction, a small group setting, and related services. However, when it comes to the state test, she takes the exact same exam as her general education peers. She will be expected to demonstrate mastery of third-grade Common Core standards, despite the learning goals laid out in her IEP.

Briana is one of more than 170,000 students in New York City receiving special education services. She and countless peers make progress, love learning, and achieve daily success. However, none of that is reflected in how the current state assessments measure their performance.

It’s a frustrating problem because we, as special education teachers, spend time designing rich learning environments that give our students opportunities for success. We incorporate multisensory learning experiences into the classroom, promote our students’ social and emotional growth, and celebrate triumphs and struggles.

But that learning environment is removed when they take the current state tests. When students are asked to engage with the same material as their non-disabled peers without any of the typical academic support structures they receive in the classroom, it demonstrates a disregard for students’ social and emotional well-being and their developmental readiness.

As educators, we staunchly believe in the importance of assessment. Fair, worthwhile, and appropriately designed assessments provide important data about what kids know and where they need support. They provide evidence of student learning and drive daily decisions about teaching and learning. Assessments identify learning gaps, misconceptions, and opportunities for enrichment.

In October, the Obama administration called for limits on testing in schools, saying assessments should be “worth taking” and “fair,” as well as “just one of multiple measures of student achievement.” When tests are not fair, worthwhile, or designed appropriately to meet the needs of all learners, the data collected is not useful and the social and emotional well-being of students is put at risk.

At the New York State School Boards Association Conference, New York State Commissioner of Education MaryEllen Elia defended the current exams with caveats, saying she would focus on fixing specific issues. We, New York City special education teachers, are pleading with Commissioner Elia and Gov. Cuomo to consider Briana and other students with special needs when making improvements to the current state tests.

We understand that the state’s previous request for a federal waiver to assess students with severe disabilities at their instructional level, rather than their grade level, was rejected. However, we urge the state to continue lobbying to be able to make this change, which might now be possible with the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act.

We recommend the state consider multiple or alternative measures that can appropriately and accurately assess all students, including students with disabilities. A computer-based test that adapts to the student’s level is one option. Other options would be a performance-based or portfolio assessment, or modifying the current assessments to include speaking and listening sections.

Briana is so much more than a caveat. She is a bright, enthusiastic student and she is learning. She, and all the other students with disabilities, deserve a better opportunity to showcase their learning.

Let her — and 170,000 others — show you what they can do.

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