Duncan’s Calls for Special Ed Testing Parity Draw Criticism

Ever since education reform advocates started pushing for more objective ways to assess student progress, experts have argued about the best way to measure the academic achievement of special education students. Now, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has waded into the fight by calling on states to use the same approach with their special needs students as they do on their regular peers.

According to Joy Resmovits of the Huffington Post, even as the Obama administration pushed the states to adopt tests that measure student progress, it still allowed up to 2% of students to be tested using “modified” academic objectives. The percentage was set based on the number of students who typically cannot reach parity with other students, no matter the amount or quality of academic assistance they get.

However, almost as soon as the US Department of Education adopted the new rule, advocates for special needs students and their families have been fighting to have it removed.

Now the Secretary of Education is responding to those pleas. On Friday, the administration posted a proposal to roll back the rule, which would let states already administering alternate tests use them for the last time this school year. The administration can act on its own accord and is gathering feedback from the public until Oct. 7 before making a final decision.

“We have to expect the very best from our students and tell the truth about student performance, to prepare them for college and career,” Duncan said in a statement. “That means no longer allowing the achievement of students with disabilities to be measured by these alternate assessments aligned to modified achievement standards. This prevents these students from reaching their full potential, and prevents our country from benefiting from that potential.”

Although Duncan’s position drew the support of some heavy hitters on the Hill, including Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, at least some who have worked with special needs students were taken aback. Sarah Littman, a special education teacher, tweeted her opposition using some very strong language and accused Duncan of never having worked or even spoken with any special needs children before taking this position.

However, other government officials say that they’ve considered all sides of the issue before announcing the change.

The government is aware of these concerns, said Michael Yudin, acting assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, in an interview. “This is not going to be easy … I do talk to parents of kids with disabilities every day — my staff does, my team does,” he said in response to the tweet. “Whether a kid is two or three grade levels down, whether the kid has an [individualized education plan] or not, you still have the kind of challenges: How would you provide the right types of support and instruction to make sure that kid accesses grade-level content? This is definitely going to be hard but we also firmly believe this is doable.”