Tuesday, August 09, 2011
DOE had its finger on the scales when reporting special education progress
by Larry Geller
There has been no further explanation for the low test scores that special education students turned in for this year’s Alternative Assessment. In 2010, 62 percent of students who took the test were rated proficient in math and 70 percent in reading. This year the scores were four and eight percent respectively. This year, teachers were not allowed to prompt and were not scoring the tests themselves.
In the absence of a better theory, it seems clear that when Department of Education teachers were allowed to prompt students and were responsible also for scoring the tests, they over-rated the true proficiency level. “Prompting” is basically whatever the teacher wants it to be. It can go perilously close to providing the actual answer. Of course, the pressure is on to score these and other children as high as possible to meet the increasingly onerous and unrealistic goals of No Child Left Behind.
Judge David Ezra, who oversaw the decade-plus Felix Consent Decree, is fond of expounding from the bench that parents expect a Cadillac education for their students but that the law doesn’t require the DOE to provide that. Those of us who work with or have worked with special needs students know that the Cadillac isn’t even in the running. The DOE often provides nothing better than a Volkswagen up on blocks. Parents would settle for a used Ford, if it actually ran.
Both the DOE and DOH became good at acing the court monitor’s special assessment methodologies (“service testing”) toward the end of the Felix Consent Decree. There were clear and important improvements, but not so much in the processes that would assure students a free appropriate public education (or FAPE), which is what the federal law does guarantee. That the number of due process hearings soared to record levels during the life of the consent decree and that parents prevailed in most, was a better measure of how the DOE mindset remained basically unchanged.
Although the DOE, DOH and the state legislature desperately wanted to get the federal court off their backs, that did not mean that they would do it by actually providing the required assessments or services to students.
I found it shameful that even the named (initialed) plaintiffs in the case were in and out of due process themselves while the consent decree lumbered on.
With the end of Felix, many parents reported that services were increasingly denied. By “services” I mean remedies that a school team ought to have decided upon and provided in order to deliver FAPE to the students. Depending on the school, and variability was quite high, special needs students either made progress or did not. Depending on the familiarity of parents with the system and their willingness to challenge authority, schools continue to be taken to due process today. It’s as though an attorney is needed just to get an education for these students.
Yes, many students did benefit from Felix. Of course they did. But the new test scores should lead us to question whether there has been significant backsliding.
The low scores on the new assessments still need to be adequately explained. If it turns out that prior test results were simply bogus, Hawaii parents would be wise to consider whether some kind of legal action might again be needed. If so, it should learn from Felix and provide true control of the process to the plaintiff class. That’s tough with the common class-action lawsuit, and Felix was a great example of a process that took off on its own, leaving the class to fight for benefit even as the children lost out on the education that should have been theirs by right.
The class action ran in parallel with hundreds and hundreds of due process hearings. That alone should have been a signal. The plaintiff attorneys relied on parent input from arguably questionable sources, including a prominent parent who also happened to be a DOE employee. And towards the end, even the plaintiff attorneys were split on whether the DOE should be held in contempt (as it ultimately was) for not complying with the decree.
What we’re left with, barring any further explanation, is no more Felix but four and eight percent competence levels. If valid, those scores represent a massive failure not only of Hawaii schools but also of the legal system.
Why are special need kids being tested in the first place. By definition these kids are at risk. Using a curriculum which includes testing is assuming these kids will be at less risk if their test scores go up. Where's the validation for that? Let's use a curriculum which will increase their chances of becoming productive members of society. Testing just only increases the huge bonuses CEO's of the testing companies already receive. When are we going to stop using the bang your head across wall approach to education.