High Stakes Testing and Children with Special Needs

March madness is entering its final days, and I am not referring to basketball. The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) high stakes standardized tests that align with Common Core are wrapping up round one in Illinois. But unlike the NCAA college basketball tournament, there will be a second round of PARCC in May. For many children with special needs, this tournament of testing can’t end soon enough.

The story of two sisters, ages 9 and 11, illustrates the absurdity of the educational policy surrounding PARCC and other high stakes tests. The older sister has special needs, so her parents wrote a letter on her behalf requesting that she be permitted to opt out of taking the test. This request was repeatedly denied by her school district until the Superintendent personally intervened on her behalf. According to the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), she was supposed to refuse the test herself every time a section of it was presented to her.

Meanwhile ISBE policy permitted her younger sister, for whom the test might be annoying and time wasting but not harmful, to opt out on her own. After her computer froze during a practice test, losing all of her work, she declared to her third grade teacher, ‘That’s it. I’m opting out of taking this test.’ And it was as simple as that.

If her older sister were capable of making a similar declaration, her parents would not have submitted a written request. But they knew that she might not be able to summon up the right words or the courage to refuse to take the test. Thus, her anxiety and challenges with verbal communication would have trapped her into taking a test that would do great harm to her.

There are many good reasons why she and other children with special needs should be permitted to take a different assessment, or no assessment at all.

There are no appropriate accommodations in place for children with special needs who are being required to take the PARCC test,.

The test is already very long, and since her Individualized Education Plan (IEP) specifies extra time for testing, it could take as long as 20 hours for her to complete PARCC. Those hours are lost time for the specialized instruction she desperately needs.

Because she has an IEP, she is constantly assessed. Nothing new or useful would be gained from taking PARCC.

There was no doubt she would become frustrated and dysregulated by the disruption to her school routine and the demands of the test, particularly those related to taking it on a computer. So add on more hours with the social worker and occupational therapist to calm her down enough to function in school.

The outcome of this testing for her is highly predictable. She will fail.

Here’s what failure looked like for a child who already knows too much of it. Another child in her sister’s school who has diagnosed special needs, including dyslexia, was forced to take the PARCC practice test. He received a score of 20 percent correct and was demoralized. It validated everything he already believed to be lacking about himself, further damaging his confidence and fragile self-esteem. It did nothing to inform his instruction at school. He has already been tested multiple times and the school has a record of the results. While the support he needs for his dyslexia is often not there, he is expected to take a high stakes test that will waste precious time that could be spent helping him with his learning disability.

So what were the options for the sister with special needs?

She could practice saying, ‘I do not want to take this test,’ and hope those words come out of her mouth every time she is presented with a section of PARCC.

She could write a letter that stated she will not take the test but needed to remember to present the letter every time a session of PARCC testing took place.

She could scream and cry during all of the hours and days of testing.

She could waste countless hours attempting to take a test she would certainly fail.

It seems so unfair that her younger sister was able to opt out of PARCC because she is clever and verbal. The younger sister was be permitted to read quietly in a different room during testing sessions. She loves to read and at least she learned something. Amazingly, a third grader could make a decision about taking this test, but the ISBE interpretation was that the parents of a child with special needs had no right to do so on her behalf? That feels like a violation of parental rights and the rights of children with special needs. It makes no sense at all.

As usual, it is those who need the most help who are crushed under the heel of the educational-industrial complex. Students with IEPs are constantly assessed to see if they are on target to meet their goals. Forcing them to sit for a meaningless and time-consuming test is abusive. It is disrespectful of the children and does not meet any of the goals expressed in their IEPs, which may even be a violation of the law.

Shame on the ‘educators’ at ISBE who made this decision and on the state legislature for failing to pass a law giving parents the right to opt out of testing on behalf of their children.

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