Education: Funding based on test scores fails kids

Levi Cavener    [Published in the Idaho-Press Tribune on July 21, 2014]

National Education Secretary Arne Duncan wants to tie test scores for special education students to the amount of money a state receives from the federal government for reimbursement of special education services. States that send back high test scores for special education students will get more money; those with lower scores will get less or even no money. Surely this will improve student learning, right?

Clearly, No Child Left Behind’s (NCLB) emphasis on tying student test scores to federal money was a major success! Cloning NCLB tools for special education students sounds like a real winner.

Secretary Duncan argued, “We know that when students with disabilities are held to high expectations and have access to a robust curriculum, they excel.”

If only teachers knew this was the magical brew to student success! Obviously teachers have never held special education students to a robust curriculum and high expectations, right? Secretary Duncan’s implication that special education and general education instructors do not already hold students to high standards is deeply offensive.

Let me be clear: I share Secretary Duncan’s belief that all students, special education students included, can make progress toward their academic goals. However, special education students, by definition, have a disability which adversely affects successful academic progress in comparison to typical students. If these students could progress at the rate of their peers, they would not need for special education services.

This doesn’t mean that special educators and general education teachers lower our expectations for these students; on the contrary, we bend over backwards to accommodate for individual student needs and accelerate their learning to bridge the gap.

However, having high expectations also doesn’t mean that we expect a student reading at a first grade level to independently read Shakespeare’s Othello and write an analysis of racial connotations within the text. No, it means we instruct the student at a level that is challenging, but attainable.

Thus Secretary Duncan’s plan is the square root of stupid. Special education students are already being monitored for growth of their IEP goals on an individual level; emphasis on growth, not a set proficiency score, a much more logical way to monitor achievement for all students. .

Tying federal dollars to these scores is reckless. How does withholding dollars for special education services improve student learning? Does anyone believe that more learning will take place with less qualified teachers and reduced budgets? Perhaps districts’ inability to order new curriculum materials will accelerate student learning? Surely students will enjoy yet another high stakes standardized test!

We have already seen the devastating impact NCLB’s policy of withholding dollars to the neediest schools. Educators have firsthand witnessed the horrors associated with being in Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) jail.

Schools with the most challenging populations, schools are financially abandoned.

Data demonstrating a total failure in tying dollars to high stakes tests isn’t anything new or particularly shocking. Indeed, the respected Cato Institute reported in 2007 that NCLB’s strategy was a total bust. NCLB is such a colossal failure that the federal government has resorted to giving out waivers to individual states because congress has refused to rewrite the law.

Yet, despite study after study confirming these findings, somehow Mr. Duncan continues to believe this strategy will work for Special Education students. What was it Einstein said about the definition of insanity?

This policy has no place in our nation’s schools. It puts our most vulnerable students in the cross-hairs of political brinkmanship. These students deserve better, much better.