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Tilles: Some students being set up to fail

Classroom chalkboard.

Classroom chalkboard. Photo Credit: iStock

Under the federal No Child Left Behind and the Race to the Top reform programs, English-language learners in New York are required to take the state English Language Arts test as soon as they have been enrolled for a year and a day. Most educators believe the timeline is one to two years premature for students to be proficient enough to pass the exam.

Similarly, the U.S. Department of Education also mandates that special education students take the state English Language Arts and math tests at their age levels -- regardless of the levels at which they are being taught.

In both cases, students are asked to take tests they, teachers and school administrators know they can't pass. That's neither helpful nor fair to the students. Unfortunately, the issue often gets overlooked with the controversy surrounding Common Core standards. Although it's unclear how many students fall into this category, both teachers and administrators say the number is substantial.

The New York State Board of Regents asked Washington for waivers to requirements of Race to the Top, a federal initiative meant to spur education reform. One of the waivers -- subsequently withdrawn but the topic of further conversation with the Department of Education -- was to modify testing for special ed students who might be as many as two years behind their age-level peers, and for English-language learners who have not had the three to four years needed to pass an English Language Arts test.

Reports from schools have shown a substantial decline in self-esteem and educational attainment for these students. I have seen in my visits to more than 80 school districts on Long Island how children give up on themselves and eventually quit learning altogether.

As a member of the Michigan Board of Education, as director of school law of the Michigan Education Department and as executive secretary to the Michigan speaker of the house in the 1970s, I have been involved with the Education for All Handicapped Children Act since its passage in 1975. The federal law sought to ensure that children with disabilities would receive appropriate education. With the increasing use of one-size-fits-all standardized tests, we have gotten away from the act's intent. Compliance of districts and schools is judged by student scores on high-stakes tests. Instead we should use diagnostic adaptive tests that can measure the appropriate level of a student's abilities and enable them to answer questions -- while measuring performance.

It is understandable that some would want to keep the system as it was before the new federal guidelines. Indeed, under previous regulations, districts could be successful even with poor performance by these students. For example, a district or school that performed adequately as a whole might still have the subgroups of special ed and English language students at subpar levels.

But the Education for All Handicapped Children Act was not meant to provide specific scores. Instead, it was meant to create individual programs that would lead to realizing student potential.

That goal is not aligned with the current use of the state's testing for third- to eighth- graders. Those measurements are for different purposes -- to judge district and teacher performance based on a student test scores. Tests should be diagnostic and not used for punitive reasons. In some cases, special ed and English language students are giving up and are not interested in learning anymore after a year of taking tests that many educators and policy-makers thought they would not pass.

As discussions continue between the state and Washington, let us look for an approach that gets back to giving children an appropriate education and not exacerbating problems for students who need all the help they can get.

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