Monday, February 23, 2009

Does Special Ed Law REALLY Do Damage?

In response to a previous post reviewing a book critical of the ADA, a reader asked this question:

It seems like the disability acts do more harm than good, but I'm curious how much good they do in your case.

This is a good question, because it allows me to share my own personal experience and frustration with the follies of IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities in Educaiton Act).

The reader quated above recounts an episode of the TV show "Family Guy" where a school principal "enticed" average students to do poorly so that they can get into special educaiton, all in attempts to boost the school's test scores (special ed students' scores didn't count against the school.)

My situaiton in Baltimore County is slightly different, but the gist is there. All high-school students must pass the HSA (High School Assessment) tests. If students do not pass, they do not graduate, and the number of students who pass (as a percentage of the student body) affects the schools' ratings.

Well, special education students have to take the HSA's and their scores count towards the total. But, students who do poorly enough on the tests, and who have IEP's (which means they are in special ed), get to take the Mod-HSA,or, what some call the "HSA lite." This is a test that has three, rather than four, answer choices per question, has a lower required reading level, and is generally easier in content. But - get this - the Mod-HSA scores count AS IF THEY WERE HSA SCORES.

This may seem like a good idea to enable the students not at HSA level to graduate, but there is a hidden negative consequence: the school has active incentive to get as many people to take the Mod-HSA as possible. As the Mod-HSA is easier than the HSA, but is worth the same amount to the school's ranking, it is in the school's interest to ensure that as many students as possible take the easier test so that they can pass with higher numbers.

And if THAT isn't enough, students who fail the HSA more than twice - whether they are special ed or not - are allowed to do a project called the "Bridge Plan" in place of the HSA. While the Bridge Plan DOES NOT count towards the schools' scores - thus providing an incentive NOT to have students take the Bridge Plan - this also has a hidden negative consequence: students fail to take the HSA seriously because they now know that if they fail twice, they can just take the easier Bridge Plan. (Whether it is easier is debatable, as it is a thick and cumbersome project, although one need not study for it, as all the information needed is in the provided booklet.)

Another bad consequence, at least to me, is that all of these non-HSA options take away the whole rationale for the HSA. While I am not a fan of the HSA, and I do not like the idea that a student might not graduate because they failed to pass one test, I believe in sticking to rules. If we decide that the HSA will be a prerequisite for graduation, then it simply sends kids mixed signals to allow alternative (easier) avenues towards graduattion. (It is like telling a student that they need a "c" to pass the class, but then telling them that they can get an "f" as long as they do x project at the end of the year. By that point, the "c" rule ceases to be a rule.)

While the Bridge Plan is open to regular and special ed kids, its primary motivation was from the department of special education, who continually lowers the bar so that kids might pass. As the mindset goes, it is easier to lower the bar than to raise the kid. And this is precisely what I dislike about special education. It is world where "standards" exist in name only (and often evocation of them provoke cries of unfairness). It is a world where it is best to have the test read to Johny, rather than to lower Johny's self-esteem by holding him back until he can read the test himself. It is a world that spends most of its time "getting kids through" rather than "getting kids better."

So, to answer the reader's question, this is how it works where I teach: we pretend to hold kids accountable but give our special education students multiple routes (easier routes) so as to keep numbers up. This allows the schools to look like they are 'standards based' while hiding the fact that the standards are so flexible as to not be standards at alll.

That's special ed for you.


  1. It was actually King of the Hill, not Family Guy, but no biggie. I get them confused, too.

  2. Okay, I have another question. What is your goal in special education? How much do you feel like you can realistically expect from your students? Are some students much more capable than others?

  3. David,

    When I got into special ed, my goal was to help students with disabilities be able to do as much as they could in school. I got into it because of a long-term sub job I had in special ed, where i was really able to connect to a few autistic and learning disabled kids, and get them to produce work that they did not think they could produce.

    I have learned that I cannot realistically expect to help students where I am now. I am one high-expectation fish in a sea of lowe-expectations. I believe in "do with," while they believe in "do for." I believe in getting the student to gradually reach the bar, while they believe in pulling the bar down to the kid.

    And, yes, some students are definitely more capable than others, and in a standardized curriculum, that is a hard obstacle. My belief is, to quote another teacher, that "it is not a god given right to understand Algebra II." Some kids may only be able to "get by" with D's, while others, with the right helps and encouragement, could get B's. Some can "overcome" the disability, and some cannot.

    But the point, for me, is that we cannot have it both ways: we cannot be a "standards based" school and at the same time do everything possible to immunize special ed kids from responsibility of meeting standards.

    Whether a kid is disabled or not, she is going to get out into a real world that will expect her to meet the same standards as everyone else, and does not care whether she was read to in high school. These kids need to learn a measure of self-reliance that they are not getting in the very motherly (read: nurturing and accomodating) atmosphere of high school.