Special Ed Teacher: High stakes testing is not the way to assess student progress or teacher effectiveness.

Broken Ruler

Dear Mr. Gates and the Gates Foundation,

High stakes testing is not the way to assess student progress or teacher effectiveness. The tests currently in use – and worse, the ones coming, such as the PARCC test – have little or no data on statistical validity or reliability. Despite this lack of statistical rigor, these tests are being used to determine the path of children’s lives and teachers’ careers.

As a special education teacher for 20 years, I see the effects on my students constantly. High stakes tests are used as data points in the qualification process for special education, which increases students’ level of stress when taking the tests, and causes many parents to believe that the tests are valid reliable; after all, parents opine, and reasonably enough, if the tests are not valid and reliable, why would the school use the scores in that fashion? We use them because they are data – but all too often those data do not reflect students’ actual functioning in the classroom. I have lost count of the number of students who cannot, or do not, perform in class, for a wide variety of reasons, whose test scores proclaim them above average, who are referred for special education assessment by concerned teachers, who are then told that the students in question cannot qualify for services (which many of them sorely need) because their test scores were too high last year. I have also lost track of the number of students who are simply poor test takers who are referred for special education services based on poor test scores that in no way reflect their classroom performance or understanding of the material.

I have seen students taking tests despite illness, injury, or disability, with too little sleep, no breakfast, or emotionally exhausted from events at home ranging from a parent in the hospital to a sibling in jail, told that they must take this test, which has no bearing on their grades, and that they must take it seriously, as their entire future rests upon the outcome of this test. I have seen students break down and cry because they do not understand a question, and they have been pushed so hard at home and at school to do their best that when they reach a question they don’t understand, they become too upset to continue. On the other hand, I have also seen students who know that the test means little in their own world, and they refuse to take the test seriously, because these tests are not connected to grades or programming or anything else that the students actually care about. Then, once the test is over, students do not see their scores for months – in Colorado, the test is administered in March, and the scores are not available until August – by which time the students have forgotten how hard they worked, or didn’t work, and are ready to start the next grade – where they are categorized by their scores on a test that is now 5 months old – nearly half a school year. I even had one student who was administered the test in a residential psychiatric facility to which she had been committed the week before – because the school could not afford to take a 0 on her test. How valid do you think that score was? And yet her scores were used the next year as part of her IEP, to determine that in addition to emotional disability she also had a learning disability.

I have seen parents even more stressed than their children, concerned over changes in scores that measure less than five hundredths of a percent, showing that the student gained or lost compared to previous years, despite the statistical insignificance of that quantity of change. I have seen parents come to their children’s schools, scores in hand, arguing that the minor change in score means that their child is now gifted or disabled, and either way needs preferential treatment in a variety of different programs. I have seen parents come in gushing that their child is doing so well, and come in screaming that the school is failing their child – and both children have the same scores.

As a teacher, my efficacy is based on these scores – scores that are impacted by so much more than just what goes on in my classroom, and even within my building. I spent 16 years in a highly-mobile, high-needs, low-income school, 50% of the students spoke a language other than English at home, in which where it was determined (based on the CSAP, which became the TCAP) that our students were failing – this, despite the fact that, on those same tests, these students entered middle school an average of 1.5 years behind – the students who entered in 6th grade and stayed for all 3 years of middle school (which was only about half of them – the rest moved before completing middle school), those students made an average of 4 years of growth in 3 years, catching them up to within 1/2 a year of their peers – despite that, we were a “failing” school (although our scores were, barely, within the average range, and moved up every year).

As a special education teacher, I am told that 1% of my students must perform within the advanced range. There’s a problem with this: if they could perform at that level, they wouldn’t be my students. Those students who do perform at that level have been remediated, and therefore no longer qualify for special education. So if I do my job well, I will never reach the goal that is set for me, unless, of course, I keep students in special education past the point when they no longer qualify. Teachers of English Language Learners are caught in the same catch-22; the students who can perform well enough to meet the qualifications of “success” no longer qualify for the program, leaving the goal of proficiency forever out of reach.

As a teacher, I watch students take a test that is designed to be too hard for the majority of students, so that those students who exceed the standards can also be assessed. Have you ever taken a test that was designed to be too hard to pass? It is incredibly frustrating, especially for those students who are truly invested and truly wish to succeed.

As I administer the TCAP, I watch my students work as hard as they can, taking a test that is, by design, too hard for them – even more so than their peers, these tests are, by design, too hard for special education students. So there I sit, stuck between two laws: the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, more popularly known as No Child Left Behind, which mandates these tests, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which mandates that students with disabilities be instructed and assessed with accommodations and modifications appropriate to their disabilities, knowing that for too many of them, those accommodations and modifications which are the most effective in the classroom, which allow them to access the same information as their peers, and demonstrate their knowledge – those accommodations and modifications are not available on the assessment… and so these students, who I watch grow and progress all year, making progress slowly and steadily or in leaps and bounds, those students, who work so hard, and try so hard on the TCAP, those students get their scores back in the fall, and their scores are in no way reflective of how hard they worked or what progress they made… and when they ask me why, I can only tell them that I know hard they tried, and how much growth they made that doesn’t show on the test. And then I have to tell them to do it again, on test that I know is neither valid nor reliable, from a statistical point of view that nonetheless will have a large part in determining their educational future.


Karen Cohn
Special Education teacher since 1994


About Highlighting Members' Needs

We are running for the following Renton Education Association positions because we believe in the following planks: Becca Ritchie, Candidate for REA President, Nelsen Middle School, Computer Tech Susan DuFresne, Candidate for Primary Executive Board, Maplewood Heights Elementary, Integrated Kindergarten ✅  Demanding a healthy work-load/life balance. ✅  Bargaining competitive professional compensation. ✅  Challenging the status quo test culture with: Less is more! ✅  Emphasizing our professional expertise. ✅  Prioritizing equity and access for all. ✅  Utilizing 2-way 21st century communication tools. ✅  Acting in solidarity with all unions. ✅  Supporting ALL members. ✅   Implementing developmentally appropriate K-3 curriculum/assessment.
This entry was posted in End High Stakes Testing, Junk Science of High Stakes Standardized Testing, Measuring Effective Teaching, Special Education, Teacher Evaluations and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Special Ed Teacher: High stakes testing is not the way to assess student progress or teacher effectiveness.

  1. timmcfarland says:

    I love this.
    I, too, am a special ed. teacher. My students are in special ed. for a reason, and it’s not because they do well on tests. If they pass state tests two or three years in a row, that’s pretty good evidence that they don’t need to be in special ed. any longer. Many of my students pass tests in areas that are not being served on their IEPs. Regular ed. students benefit when my students get control of their disruptive classroom behaviors. So, just how am I supposed to be evaluated, using state tests? There are too many variables to consider, not the least of which is the validity of such tests when students are two or more years below or above grade level.

  2. Cheryl hoime says:

    Students can opt out of these test….no law says they have to take , encourage your students parents to opt out of the test……..it is not illegal…..they can not force kids to take these tests…period…..and my period means period….

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