Student Voice: Guestblogger Ari Ne’eman

First, thanks to Andrew for inviting me to guest blog here on Eduwonk. After this post about student bloggers, I sent him an e-mail suggesting it and he jumped on the idea with an enthusiasm that I don’t often see from the professional community. Youth voices are essential to the education reform process and I’m glad to have the opportunity to do my part. Having said that, let’s jump straight into the fray.

Minnesota Public Radio carried a story earlier this month on how special education students are keeping “good schools” from passing AYP. Here’s an excerpt:

“Many educators think more students should be allowed to take an alternative math test. And principal Erich Heise thinks it’s wrong to penalize schools if their special education students can’t pass a high-stakes math test.

“To be required to test every child just doesn’t make any intuitive sense. There are always going to be some children who will not meet standards. And we all know it,” said Heise. “So when I speak of common sense, that’s part of what I’m referring to.”

Heise said most large schools are struggling with this issue, and facing penalties under No Child Left Behind. For many outstate schools, their special education students’ test scores are the sole reason they didn’t make adequate yearly progress.”

As a student who received special education services throughout middle and high school, I can’t help but feel that the press continues to miss the point on special education and NCLB. When did we decide that teaching students with disabilities math was an impossible goal? When I was in school, many of the students receiving accommodations or even spending time in pullout classrooms and out of district placements (I personally experienced a fair range of educational environments) could have succeeded on a higher-level curriculum. Most of us never got a chance. Special education students are disproportionately tracked into courses with low expectations and have been for decades. Is it so surprising that many of us are lacking basic math skills? I know that I would not have been able to go to college had I not insisted on access to the general curriculum. Many of my equally bright classmates who were not as active self-advocates still do not have access to higher education or the basic academic skills that should accompany a diploma. The presumption was and still is that a special education classification precludes a student from higher-level learning.

That’s why I can’t help but be somewhat amused by the panic coming from the detractors of accountability reform. Yes, NCLB sets extraordinary difficult requirements on schools, particularly in reference to students with disabilities. Having said that, what the legislation asks is only difficult because, despite the strong foundations that IDEA laid down for them, districts have utterly failed in providing equal educational opportunity to students with special needs at almost every level. Kudos to Congress for sticking to its guns on NCLB’s re-authorization and shame on those states that continue to cheat through uneven “n” numbers and high confidence intervals. Teachers require accountability from students every day in school. Show me one reason that, with all the money and importance the nation puts on education, schools shouldn’t be held accountable in a similar way.

Brief note: Having said all that, I would stress the need for certain reforms to the legislation. ESL and special needs students would both benefit significantly from the further expansion of the growth model pilot program as it would give schools an incentive to work with students who need the most help, rather than those right on the margin of proficiency. Addressing the use of uneven “n” numbers and confidence intervals, as well as increasing the use of transition outcomes as a means of assessment would also serve to help close the achievement gap between subgroups. The Miller-McKeon Draft seems to make some progress towards those ends. We’ll see how it plays out.

Ari Ne’eman is a sophomore at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and the Founding President of The Autistic Self Advocacy Network. He is also the Policy Workgroup Leader for the Youth Advisory Council to the National Council on Disability. His views are his own.

5 Replies to “Student Voice: Guestblogger Ari Ne’eman”

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