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Accommodate Don't Discriminate

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This blog post was co-written by Michelle Rhee, CEO and Founder, StudentsFirst and Richard Nyankori, Deputy Chancellor for Special Education, D.C. Public Schools.

We were recently having dinner at Michelle's house, and being the wonks we are, we jumped into a Twitter debate on the state of special education in this country.

The Twitter conversation got a little heated when the topic of testing came up. We know, there are a lot of people out there who think we're too focused on standardized tests. But, really, how can you diagnose learning problems, move kids to the next level or hold teachers accountable if you don't measure student progress in an objective, standardized way? Advocating for standardized tests doesn't mean killing creativity in classrooms or supporting a one-size-fits-all approach to instruction. The tests are simply measurement tools.

There are people who accept testing for typical students but who draw the line at supporting standardized testing for kids with disabilities. Many people who fall into this camp were quite vocal during our Twitter debate that night. But the truth is, arguing against testing for kids with disabilities is discriminatory. Good instruction comes with good assessments. You can't separate them, and to try to do so creates two, unequal systems, one with accountability and one without it. This is a civil rights issue.

For much of our country's history, society has expected less of people with disabilities. For all its shortcomings, however, the federal No Child Left Behind law marked a change in that thinking. The law requires that students with disabilities generally have to be included in school accountability measures -- meaning they must be tested and schools are judged on those test results. Any weakening of this policy would hurt kids, and we must remember that as Congress considers reauthorizing the law.

Some people say it's cruel to make students with disabilities take challenging tests. We think it's cruel to leave them out. Sure, it can be difficult as adults to see kids struggle with a tough task. But think about the smile on that kid's face, or the confidence in his eyes, after he gives it his best shot. We have to teach children to deal with frustrating moments, not shelter them from ever having them.

Among the biggest proponents of the testing brought about by the federal law were advocates for people with disabilities. They don't want to be held to low standards. Telling them they don't have to bother taking the tests is akin to telling them they can't measure up or aren't worth the effort. We can't think of a more harmful message to send to any child.

There are circumstances when accommodations should be made. For example, you might give a child a test in an untimed setting, or you might create an oral version of an exam instead of a written one. But, at the end of the day, educators must be able to draw useful comparisons among children in different classrooms and school settings. They can't do that if the measurement tools are dramatically different. Schools should accommodate, but they should not discriminate against, kids with disabilities.

Special education teachers are masters at individualization in the classroom, and general education teachers can learn so much by watching their peers. Often, children with disabilities work under an Individualized Education Program tailored to meet their specific needs. In many ways, IEPs are an example of the kind of differentiated instruction we'd love to see for all kids. They are crafted to produce the best possible outcomes for each child. But at the end of the day, don't we also have to measure those outcomes?

Think of it this way. We all have to get on the scale when we go to the doctor for a checkup. No one expects each and everyone one of us to weigh the same, and no one expects us to follow the same diet or exercise regimen. But just because our prescription for good health may vary, that doesn't mean we don't have to get on that scale.

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