Imagine that we live in a society where running a mile is a highly valued skill. Young people are trained from an early age to increase their distance, speed and stamina until they are finally tested to see if they have achieved a given standard. Those who are successful receive a diploma that serves as a rite of passage and opens doors to future opportunities. Those who fail can keep trying or move on with life as best they can.
Now imagine someone has a disability that makes it hard for them to run or even walk. We still value being able to run a mile, so we make special accommodations, such as letting them use a crutch or extending the time allowed. And if they can’t do that, perhaps we have a caregiver push them around the track in a wheelchair. Remember, the important thing is for them to make it around the track four times.
Well, you can see this could get pretty silly after awhile. We could have students in comas being pushed around the track on gurneys, meeting the run-a-mile standard, and getting their diplomas. But would this really mean anything for these young people? Would their diploma be a legitimate rite of passage or a useful indication of their skills?
Unfortunately, this scenario is actually being played out in our schools. We are using intellectual standards to judge the success of students with intellectual disabilities, much like using the run-a-mile standard to assess a student with no legs. This includes students with measured IQs under 70, many of whom cannot read, write, count to 10, or even speak. These students are still required to pass a state academic assessment in order to graduate. If they fail the High School Proficiency Exam (HSPE), they take the HSPE Basic or the Developmentally Appropriate Proficiency Exam. If they fail these, they take the extremely subjective Washington Alternate Assessment System Portfolio. Waivers exist, but only for a very few students with the most severe disabilities.
For the vast majority of students, we keep offering easier and easier academic tests until we find something the student can pass. Is this really helping anyone? Meanwhile, we are not adequately assessing the true strengths and capacities of these young people who have so much to offer, but who don’t fit into our standard definition of success.
Most of our students with intellectual disabilities are not destined for academic careers. Why not emphasize growth in areas that will actually benefit them and their communities – areas like character, communication, creativity, connection and citizenship? Specific goals and assessments in these areas should be determined by the student’s Individualized Education Program team, not a one-size-fits-all book of predetermined academic standards.
It’s not that students with intellectual disabilities aren’t graduating – most are eventually guided through the hoops to get their diplomas. It’s that so much time, energy and resources are spent focusing on areas where they have the least aptitude and potential. High-stakes academic testing for students with severe intellectual disabilities is a remnant of an antiquated and ineffective deficit-based model of instruction. It’s time to start trusting those closest to the students and move on.
Jim Strickland teaches high school students with moderate to severe disabilities in Marysville. He is a veteran educator of 24 years and a strong advocate of citizenship education.