students with disabilities

New York City says testing waiver sought by state could lower standards for students with disabilities

PHOTO: Monica Disare
New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña and State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia at Thomas A. Edison Career and Technical Education High School.

New York State wants to allow some students with disabilities to take below-grade-level exams — a plan that special-education advocates opposed and New York City officials questioned, arguing that would lower the standards for those students.

The state asked the federal education department in September for permission to give students with significant cognitive disabilities tests matched to their instructional level, rather than their age. State education department officials say this will provide schools with more useful information about what students have actually learned, while other supporters say it will spare those students from taking tests they have no chance of passing.

But New York City’s education department — which oversees half the state’s students — has raised concerns about the state’s request, while a coalition of 15 national special-education advocacy groups has urged U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to deny it. They argue that testing students below grade level would violate federal law, while city officials say that doing so would lower expectations of students with serious disabilities.

Maggie Moroff, a special-education policy expert at Advocates for Children, a New York City-based group that opposes the waiver, said she recognizes how frustrating it can be for students with disabilities to sit for exams they find extremely difficult and are unlikely to pass.

Nonetheless, “the waiver would give schools the opportunity to lower standards for students with disabilities,” she said, “instead of rising to the occasion.”

New York state submitted its testing waiver as part of a plan required under the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act. The request said that students may only be given a test written for younger students if they scored at the lowest level on the state exam or took an alternative test for students with severe disabilities in a previous year, are not qualified to take that alternative test in the current year, and have significant cognitive disabilities that affect their memory, language comprehension, or problem solving.

State officials said they expect only a small number of students would meet those criteria. Students would not be permitted to test more than two grade levels below their age, and students in grades 6-8 would have to take a test each year that is one grade above the one they took the previous year.

In their letter to DeVos, which was first reported by Education Week, the national Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities laid out several objections to New York’s waiver request. In addition to saying it violated the legal requirement that most students be tested at grade level, they said it would discriminate against students with disabilities and hide the achievement level of those students.

Meanwhile, the New York City education department also penned a letter to the state citing concerns about the proposal.

On a practical level, they said the student eligibility requirements were to left “many questions that need to be answered.” Disability advocates share this concern, saying that vague rules could allow districts to give below-grade-level tests to many students who don’t require them — reversing a yearslong effort by advocates to have students with disabilities take the same tests as their general-education peers.

The city also argued that the waiver risked lowering expectations of students with disabilities.

“It has been our experience that once we make a decision that a student is not able to take grade-level assessments, the likelihood of them being able to meet standards over time is significantly decreased,” said the city letter, which was signed by Sharon Rencher, senior advisor to the schools chancellor.

The state’s proposal has garnered some support, including from statewide associations of local school boards and superintendents. In all, 14 of 20 public comments submitted to the state were in “general support” of the waiver, according to the state education department.

Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, said he understands the importance of holding students with disabilities to high standards, but ultimately felt that forcing some students to take grade-level tests can do more harm than good.

“We just felt it was unfair to many of the kids,” he said. “They don’t have a realistic prospect of success and it’s just frustrating or discouraging for them.”

There is no guarantee that the federal education department will grant the waiver. The department rejected a similar request by New York in 2015. However, some observers think the state may stand a better chance under DeVos, who has emphasized the importance of letting states and districts make their own policy decisions.

A New York education department spokeswoman said districts would not be able to use the waiver to boost their accountability ratings because any student who takes a test below their grade level would automatically fall into the lowest score category.

“This waiver is simply designed to give a small group of students an assessment on which they may be able to demonstrate that which they do know,” said the spokeswoman, Emily DeSantis, “instead of giving them an assessment on which their result is likely to depend entirely on how well they guessed on the multiple choice questions.”

A spokeswoman for the city education department said it does not oppose the waiver request, but believes it presents challenges and questions that the city raised in a letter to the state.

“We remain committed to ensuring that all students are given every opportunity to access grade-level curriculum and assessments in order to ultimately earn their high school diploma and access all of the post-secondary options that this affords,” said the spokeswoman, Toya Holness.

Update: After the story published, Holness sent the following additional statement. “We appreciate that SED is working to give districts and schools more flexibility in assessing the progress and instructional needs of this small subset of students with disabilities without unduly frustrating them, and acknowledge SED’s clarification that this waiver is designed to enable these students to demonstrate their knowledge in a more meaningful way. We look forward to continuing to work with SED on this matter,” Holness said.

Sharing Stories

Tell us your stories about children with special needs in Detroit

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Parents of students with special needs face difficult challenges when trying to get services for their children. Understanding their children’s rights, getting them evaluated and properly diagnosed, and creating an educational plan are among the many issues families face.

Chalkbeat Detroit wants to hear more about those issues to help inform our coverage. We are kicking off a series of conversations called a “listening tour” to discuss your concerns, and our first meeting will focus on children with special needs and disabilities. We’re partnering with the Detroit Parent Network as they look for solutions and better ways to support parents.

Our listening tour, combined with similar events in other communities Chalkbeat serves, will continue throughout this year on a variety of topics. In these meetings, we’ll look to readers, parents, educators, and students to help us know what questions we should ask, and we’ll publish stories from people who feel comfortable having their stories told. We hope you’ll share your stories and explore solutions to the challenges parents face.

Our special education listening tour discussion will take place from 5:30-7:30 p.m., Tuesday July 24, at the Detroit Parent Network headquarters, 726 Lothrop St., Detroit.

As our series continues, we’ll meet at locations around the city to hear stories and experiences parents have while navigating the complexities of getting children the education and services they deserve.

Next week’s event includes a panel discussion with parents of children with special needs, responses from parent advocates, and an open discussion with audience members.

Those who are uncomfortable sharing stories publicly will have a chance to tell a personal story on an audio recorder in a private room, or will be interviewed by a Chalkbeat Detroit reporter privately.

The event is free and open to anyone who wants to attend, but reservations are required because space is limited. To register, call 313-309-8100 or email frontdesk@detroitparentnetwork.org.

If you can’t make our event, but have a story to share, send an email to tips.detroit@chalkbeat.org, or call or send a text message to 313-404-0692.

Stayed tuned for more information about listening tour stops, topics and locations.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.