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 fiancée, 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.

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