Make Believe You Can Achieve: Why are Schools Giving Students with Disabilities Fake Grades?

Hello, readers,

A few days ago, I was fresh out of ideas for this blog. Fortunately, that doesn’t last long, as real life tends to provide a plethora of ideas. One of them was presented to me recently via my brother’s fiancĂ©e, who currently works as a public school testing coordinator. She and the students at her school are all exhausted right now thanks to the reams of tests the students must take in order to pass to the next grade. When I was in school, this involved two tests: reading and math End of Grades, plus your classwork, for which the teacher gave you grades. Now, passing on can involve:

End of Grades in reading, math, and science and social studies (the last two are for fifth-eighth)

Read to Achieve tests, which, if not passed, can mean automatic retention (????!!!)

Benchmark tests

Pretests for various grades or units

Extend I and Extend II for students in special education (we’ll get to that)

You all know how I feel about standardized testing (or if you don’t, you can check out the March 2012 archives). To put it as simply as possible, I think these tests are a good idea–a way for teachers to measure what their students have learned and compare the results against their counterparts–gone horribly wrong. Thanks to them, we have overworked teachers who aren’t allowed to truly teach anything. We have anxiety-ridden students. We have principals and administrators on tenterhooks because they know that if their school doesn’t perform to a certain standard, the school will face state-regulated sanctions (read: punishments). We also have students with disabilities being placed in full-time special education whether they need it or not, to prevent lower test scores, so the school’s achievements won’t look sub-par. These students are not tested, often because the unspoken belief is that they can’t, and don’t, learn. Oh, we don’t say that–that would be prejudiced. But it’s what we think.

My future sister-in-law explained to me that there are situations in which kids with severe disabilities do get tested, called Extend I or Extend II tests. I had never heard of those, so she said they are tests where students work with what are called manipulatives (i.e., blocks or counters for math, other similar objects for reading, and so forth). Instead of reading passages or working problems, the students are given “tests” that are simplified as much as they need to be. And for a minute, I thought, okay, good idea. I don’t want to see any student faced with the anxiety and repercussions of standardized testing. But as long as we have it, and as long as we need tests of any kind–which in the educational system will probably be forever–I think all kids should have the opportunity to learn as much as they can, at the appropriate levels, and show what they know.

But then my future sister-in-law said the tests don’t count for anything. And now we come to the central question of this post: why are we doing that to students with disabilities?

I hear the critics out there: “Would you rather grade those students and see them fail?” No, because I don’t think failure is necessary in those cases. For example, if Holly has a severe disability, but it has been shown she can do basic math, read to a point, and write her name, why not test her at the end of the year on what she can do? Surely, in the right hands, her skills have been given the chance to improve and increase over time. But often, what we have instead is one of two scenarios. Either students with disabilities are considered uneducable (and thus act uneducable–it’s called self-fulfilling prophecy, folks), or they’re given tests, but not the experience of real achievement. It’s like we’re saying, “Okay, we’ll make believe these students are like everybody else to a point, but we can’t be bothered to admit they can achieve anything academically.” It’s also as if we’re saying, “Carson can write his name? So what–he’s in fifth grade! He should’ve learned that already. Therefore, because he does not measure up to our standards, his achievements do not count.”

And if you think this stops in special education, you’re dead wrong. Remember the January 2012 archives? That post on special ed in college? If not, let me give you a quick refresher course. Colleges all over this country claim to open their doors to students with disabilities to give them higher education. What often happens instead? You got it–more make believe. “Voluntary work hours,” constructs in which students have to earn free time, behavior contracts, and fake grades. Sure, that A might serve to make the student feel good–but if it doesn’t count, is it a real A? Is it a real achievement? Students with disabilities aren’t stupid. On some level, they know they’re being discounted, patronized, and dare I say, cheated. On some level, they don’t like it. I can tell you, I hate it. And you can say, “Of course you hate it because your IQ is fine. You don’t understand what students with severe disabilities are truly capable of.” Maybe, maybe not. I’m not gonna argue the point. But I do know what it is to feel, and so do they. So don’t you play that make believe, fake grades, fake experiences, fake life game on me.

So what should we do instead? As I have frequently said, there’s no such thing as a perfect classroom. But we can:

Make the achievements of students with disabilities real. If you’re a teacher, and you have a fifth-grader whose biggest achievement is writing his or her name, then make that a real achievement. That student probably put forth as much effort as your “regular” students do learning to divide fractions.

Work to find a grading or achievement scale that will serve students with disabilities. Some critics of the idea that students with disabilities should be graded or tested cite the idea that, if we don’t allow these students to fail, we are mollycoddling them and giving them an easy out. I don’t wholly agree with that, but I do see the point. Traditional grading methods may not work for these students (frankly, I’m not sure they’re so great for temporarily able-bodied students, either). The point here is not the grade. It’s that the work counts for something and goes on record as important. So if you’re a teacher or a principal, get down and dirty, put on your thinking cap, and ask yourselves, “How can we show these students how it feels to achieve–for real?”

Don’t underestimate your students. Remember the story of Kim, the fifth-grader whose IQ was estimated at 40, whose teacher was told not to educate her? (Check the December 2011 archives). Once her teacher and classmates rallied around her and accepted her as regular, as one of their own, her capacity to work and achieve seemed to increase. So if you have a student who seems closed off, whose disabilities seem to prevent education, make sure you know what you’re dealing with. Make sure you can effectively communicate with the student to see what he or she knows, wants, needs, and thinks.

So many people with disabilities today are living fake lives. Giving them real ones takes a lot of effort and a lot of change, but if we start early, it can be done. Why not start at school, where the purpose is to learn and to feel proud of what you know? Because we all know something, and all of that knowledge is valuable.


Pleading the Fourth Amendment: People with Disabilities are Not Public Property

Hello, readers,

You may have read this title and thought, “I thought the expression was, ‘pleading the Fifth.'” Yes, it is, and that’s something else we’ll talk about today, but I changed things around a bit.

When I was in ninth grade, the required history course for freshmen was Economic, Legal, and Political Systems (ELPS). Now they just call it civics. Anyway, no matter what you call it, ELPS was your basic course on government, voting, the economy, and the Constitution. As part of this course, we had to learn all ten amendments in the Bill of Rights. My teacher explained Amendment Four as the right to privacy, because it’s the one that discusses a citizen’s right not to have to quarter soldiers in his or her home, or have his or her property searched and seized without a warrant. My teacher’s catchy memory phrase for this was, “Amendment four, close your door.”

Well, I got A’s in ELPS, and I never thought too much about the privacy amendment after that (except to complain about the NSA, but then, everybody did that). Recently, though, as I was thinking up new post ideas, the idea of right to privacy came back to me, and I asked myself: do people with disabilities have the same rights to privacy as people without them? Understand, the question is not, should they. We know the answer to that. The question is whether they do in the first place, and if not, what we should do about it.

However, a lot of people in our world today act as if the question is a “should” proposition, and as if the answer is “no.” Think about the way that some people talk about PWDs. They say things like, “They don’t understand,” or, “They can’t take care of themselves,” or, “He/she can’t be expected to do X,” at least not successfully. The implication there is that, because PWDs allegedly can’t care for themselves or otherwise function, someone else needs to do it for them. Because someone else is in the picture, the PWD’s right to privacy may as well not exist.

A lot of people might deny this, especially loved ones of people with disabilities. They might say, “But Sam has his own room, and I don’t come in without permission.” Okay, I’ll give you some credit there, but “privacy” doesn’t only equal the right to close a door. Privacy also entails the right to make your own decisions, take care of matters that concern you, and share or not share information as you see fit. Now, I get it–if Sam is a kid, then of course Mom and Dad are going to be filled in on what his doctor or therapists have to say. And if Sam is absolutely unable to handle money, then he’s going to need budgeting help. But a lot of the time, people who work with the disability community take this too far.

I mean, for crying out loud. For some PWDs, even a trip to the bathroom isn’t private. Now, that might be partially because the person can’t take him or herself to the bathroom, and that’s okay. But does someone else really need to analyze what goes on in there? I’ll borrow from Sharon Draper’s Out of My Mind. The heroine, Melody, cannot take herself to the bathroom, so her friend, neighbor, and caregiver Ms. V does that. But then she reports back to Melody’s parents “whether I had a good poop. Why is that important?” Think about it, folks. With or without a disability, do you really want someone other than a doctor analyzing your bowel movements? Heck, I don’t even want my doctor doing it, so if he ever asks, he better have a darn good reason. Plus, this kind of thing just feeds into the stereotype that people with disabilities are so dumb they don’t even know when they need to poop and pee.

The privacy issues don’t have to be that personal, of course. Sometimes, it’s a matter of an adult living with family and still being treated like a child. For example, yes, maybe that adult needs budgeting help. But is it fair for Mom, Dad, or somebody else to then come to them one day and say, “Why are you spending money on that?” Is it fair for a PWD to have his or her possessions snooped through and taken without permission, as sometimes happens in home environments or group settings? Is it fair for a PWD, even one who can’t feed him or herself, to never get to choose what he or she eats, or to have those choices judged? Do you think PWDs get tired of going to therapy, walking and talking and moving when they’re told to (rather like trained seals) and then having doctors and therapists discuss what progress they are or are not making? Sheesh–people, dolphins have more privacy than this! Chimps in the zoo have more privacy than this, and at least they get free bananas, with no one questioning whether they have a banana addiction!

In the worst cases, people with disabilities or illnesses can even become public property. Don’t believe me? Look at some of the state-run institutions in this country. I’m willing to bet, dollars to doughnuts, that the people in those institutions don’t have much contact with loved ones, and that if they or those loved ones do or say anything to go against “the state,” they are penalized. In a more poignant, closer-to-home example: remember Justina Pellietier of Connecticut? Her parents have been fighting to get her back from the Massachusetts DCFS for months. Why? Because Justina has mitochondrial disease. Yes, it’s a rare disease, yet that does not excuse what Boston Children’s Hospital did in response, which was to accuse the Pellitiers of abuse and remand Justina into their custody, then state custody. Those people lack compassion, an understanding of basic freedoms, an understanding of real abuse and neglect, respect for parental rights, and respect for personhood. Therefore, right now, Justina is public property. I shudder to think how many people with other diseases or disabilities are in the same situation.

Worse than all this, often, PWDs can’t choose when and when not to share information. For example, maybe a PWD chooses to join an online dating service. He or she doesn’t want to share that with others yet, which is fine. That’s his or her business. But what happens when others start nagging, or even forcing, that person to share? Or conversely, what if there’s something that a person with a disability wants or needs to talk about, but is ordered not to? I wonder how many times Justina Pellitier has effectively been told to shut up. Where the heck did the Fifth Amendment go?

I’ll leave you with one final Constitutional thought. There’re two other amendments in there, numbers thirteen and fourteen. The first of these abolished slavery; the second made former slaves citizens. The fifteenth even gave them the right to vote. In other words, because of these amendments, we can’t own people and treat them as if they have no voices or rights anymore. At least, that’s the case for black people. We’d argue, no, that’s the case for everybody.

So…when you look at a person with a disability, do you see a person, or a piece of property?