When NC testing turns learners with disabilities into liabilities

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Having worked with students with disabilities for nearly 10 years in Wake County Public Schools, I have learned a thing or two about students with special learning needs.

I have learned that they may not look or think like the average school-aged student, but they do learn, albeit at their own pace. I have learned that some of the most disabled students have some of the most profound thoughts. I have learned that my students always have just as much to teach me as I them.

Unfortunately, my most recent lesson has been one of the hardest, and it has taken me some time to accept. Our newest education reform push to test kids and rank them by their proficiency scores is leaving some of our students behind. It becomes especially troublesome when it comes to students with specific learning disabilities.

Schools give students quarterly and yearly assessments in reading, math and science (depending on grade levels) beginning in second grade, and we will add first-graders to that list this year for the quarterly assessments. We give students these tests on their grade levels, regardless of what the data teachers collect in their classrooms say about how these students are performing.

Now before homing in on the notion that a lot of this testing is because there are students academically below their grade level, students are not on grade level by current standards for a wide variety of reasons. As an educator, I feel it is my responsibility to change that, but that discussion is for another day.

The problem is these students do learn and make growth, but it is difficult to capture that growth using tests above their level. It’s like being given the bar exam your first year of law school and handed a proficiency score judging how well you know law.

There are so many problems that arise from this practice, but here are a few I feel most strongly about:

• It teaches these already struggling students to dread any kind of test. Many of my students cry during testing times, exhibit extreme anxiety or completely emotionally shut down, worrying that this test will be the one that shows whether they pass their grade. As a teacher, it is gut wrenching to watch; it almost feels emotionally abusive.

• It tells us relatively little about what the student does and does not know. It does tell us that the student is not “proficient” with grade level standards, but hopefully that would have been established well before being given these tests. Again, teachers are rather savvy when it comes to understanding their students’ needs.

In addition, you can probably guess which subgroup of students rarely shows proficiency. That’s right, the students with disabilities group. Every year, teachers across the state look over testing results, all showing low scores for their students with disabilities. Never mind that it’s a bit of a set-up for these kids. We already determined that they were struggling academically. That’s how they were identified as learning disabled in the first place.

What’s concerning is that when we constantly remind everyone how “low performing” a group of people is, people start to believe it. They start to question how much time should and shouldn’t be spent working with that group. And when you are dealing with underfunded, high-needs schools like the ones we teach in, right here in North Carolina, guess who looks more like a liability and less like the group who really can learn given the right tools and experiences?

It is this unconscious judgment call that scares me the most. When you are constantly given preposterous student-to-teacher ratios, no textbooks, no assistants and other cuts to just about every section of the education budget, you cannot possibly meet the needs of all of your average performing students, not to even mention those with learning disabilities. You are forced to put your limited resources where you feel they will make the most difference.

These are choices no one should ever have to make. I fear what kind of society we will become if we continue to let standardized testing results sway our judgment about children’s intrinsic worth.

Jessica Benton lives in Raleigh.