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Our Kids Count > Education Stakeholders Forum :: November 4, 2009

November 4, 2009 U.S. Dept. of Education
Stakeholders Forum on "Measuring Progress and Creating Continuous Systems of Improvement"
Download files available: Transcript in MS Word :: Video :: Audio

Comments by Dr. Martha Thurlow
National Center on Educational Outcomes
Excerpted from Forum Transcript

I'm pleased to be here today to talk a bit about a group of students who are in the accountability system, and that's students with disabilities. I think it's really important that we're paying attention to this group of students, because unfortunately, there's increasingly a tendency to blame these students for what's happening in the accountability system. And these are the students, among others, who the accountability system is supposed to help. So clearly, students with disabilities are performing below their general education peers. Still, I think the current turmoil in the field about this low performance is a symptom of accountability working, and we've heard some comments that indicate that that's the case.

It really has brought increased attention to a group of students who, historically, have been subjected to low expectations. They've had minimal access to the general education curriculum, and the accountability system really has opened the door to examining and exploring ways to increase their outcomes.

So, I have like five minutes, and I want to take that five minutes to first talk a bit about who kids with disabilities are. And then I'd like to focus on the accountability system that includes these students, and some considerations for appropriate assessments for them.

So, who are students with disabilities? I think it's really important to understand who students with disabilities are, because it helps us understand why it's a travesty to think that it's acceptable to assume that they can't learn, or to be willing to blame them for not reaching proficiency, or even to propose that they need a different test, or a different accountability system.
Most students with disabilities, and based on current child counts I would estimate about 75 percent all together, have either learning disabilities, speech language impairments, or emotional and behavioral disabilities. And I believe there should be no question that these students, along with those who have physical disabilities, visual, hearing, other health impairments which give us another 4 to 5 percent, totaling about 80 percent of students with disabilities, can learn the grade level content in the general education curriculum, when they're given appropriate accommodations, services, supports, and good instruction.

Research has also helped us realize that there are many students with intellectual disabilities, and that's about less than 20 percent of our students with disabilities, that they also can achieve proficiency when they receive high-quality instruction in the grade level content with appropriate services and supports, and appropriate accommodations.

So, as I thought about an accountability system that includes students with disabilities, I came up with five things that I thought were really clear elements, or components, that needed to be there.

One, the accountability system has to recognize that all students are general education students first. They need access to the general curriculum, they need qualified teachers, and they need to have high expectations for their learning.

Second, the accountability system has to focus on grade level content standards for all students, and grade level achievement standards for all but those with significant cognitive disabilities.

Third, there needs to be transparency, and reporting on subgroups, just as we have now, pretty much. This is a critical aspect of an accountability system for students with disabilities, and for other subgroups.

Fourth, when we begin to think about adjustments to the accountability system, they should be made with care, they should apply to all students, including students with disabilities, and not to a single subgroup only. I would not want to see something that was just for kids with disabilities. And I think this includes, when we think about adding a growth component to accountability, it really has to include all students, and it must have the same consequences for all students.

Fifth, the accountability system should help to focus support efforts on the lowest performing students.
It should not provide ways to hide their performance, or get them out of the system. There are many students, both with and without disabilities, and we have research showing us that there are many students without disabilities who are having the same challenges, and ar performing at very low levels. We need to open up reporting, provide information on what is happening instructionally for these students, for the lowest-performing students. And for those with disabilities, we need to be looking at expectations, accommodations, and special education services, as well as instruction.

So, again, the message is, we shouldn't be trying to figure out ways to exclude or expect less from students with disabilities. And that's kind of a principle, I think, with which we should look at accountability models. I think allowing variances for students with disabilities, such as in the past, allowing different cell sizes before accountability kicks in, doesn't work very well. What is perceived as the king of loopholes in the system sends a message that students with disabilities can be treated differently, and that low expectations for these students are acceptable. So, we need an accountability system that supports schools to hold high expectations for students with disabilities, as for other students, and that provides the needed supports to those schools where these students are not performing well.

I want to touch base on assessment systems. I can't go into depth here, but I want to highlight that I think that assessment systems have really benefitted from including all students, particularly students with disabilities. I'd say that assessment developers have had to revisit some of their assumptions. They've had to revise some of their assessment models. States, in particular, have really focused in on how to make their assessments more accessible through better accommodation policies, and by applying universal design principles to assessments, something that I think has benefitted many, many more students than just students with disabilities. And I think there's really a focus now on figuring out how do we make sure that the tests are really measuring what they're intended to measure? And I think that would be a goal for the future, that they're not measuring extraneous factors, such as whether the student can figure out what the test developer meant, what the test developer was trying to get at, whether the assessment system is trying to get at something that's confusing, whether a picture has important clues about the answer to a question. So, identifying ways to improve assessments for students with disabilities has, I think, really improved our assessments. Not that they can't be improved more, but I think we've come a long way, and that they're pretty much doing their job in identifying students' performance.

There are research efforts out there that continue to look at assessment systems, and how to make them most appropriate for students with disabilities, as they're included in accountability. I think they've looked at broad aspects of the system, including the decision-making aspect, a really important part of our assessment system. How do we continuously improve those systems, so without saying much more about all the elements, like accommodations, and decision-making, and training for decision makers, I'm going to leave it at that.

I would encourage you to look at a couple of efforts right now, maybe three, really looking at what are some principles for assessments. Our center, the National Center on Educational Outcomes, has identified some broad core principles for looking at assessments for accountability. The National Accessible Reading Assessment Projects have been looking at reading assessments particularly, and what some of the principles and guidelines are for developing those assessments, so that they are most accessible for all students. And Bob Dolan, and some of his colleagues, have been looking at computer-based testing, and what do we need to think about there to insure that we've got accessibility for all kids, particularly for kids with disabilities.

I just want to end by saying I'm an old dog at this. I can remember the time before the federal laws required accountability for students, where no requirements that students with disabilities had to be included in assessment systems. I recall stories, many people coming up to me telling me how their students with disabilities were sent on field trips to the zoo on testing days, or the parents of the students were encouraged to keep the student home on this particular day, so that they wouldn't have to participate in the state test.

We've come a long, long way since then, and the solution in the past was to get rid of the students, get them out of the system. We won't be held accountable for them, unless they're really high-performing kids with disabilities, and we do have many of those. That wasn't a good solution then, it's not a good solution now. So, as we think about options, we have to go back to some of the basic principles of inclusion, and high expectations for all students, including students with disabilities. Thank you.

Full Forum Transcript.

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