Let the real experts determine how to assess students with disabilities

Last year, I had the privilege of meeting Andrea Rediske. Andrea’s late son, Ethan, was born with brain damage. He had cerebral palsy and was blind. Not only was he forced to take Florida’s standardized test (which, by the way, required him to visually identify objects—impossible for a blind boy) but the district was pressuring the family to make Ethan take that exam on his death bed so they could make their 95% No Child Left Untested mandated quota of kids taking the test.

Last winter, I posted a video of Andrea telling her son’s story. If you haven’t seen it, it will break your heart.

Ethan’s story is maddening and heartbreaking and absurd. But here’s the really absurd part: it is the law. It’s the freaking law. Your child was born without a complete brain—too bad. Who decides who takes the test? People who have never met your child, but who nonetheless have the power to enforce the one-size-fits-all testing mandate.

These people—the test bureaucrats—are NOT in the classroom working with our students every day. Parents and teams of educators—the real experts—work hard to develop IEPs (Individualized Education Plans) for students who cannot follow the standard curriculum in the standard way.

These IEPs take time and use care. They are developed by the people who work most closely with students: the student’s parents and their team of educators. These IEPs are not standardized. They are the opposite of that—they are individualized.


So does it make sense for a student with an Individualized Education Plan to take a standardized test that has nothing to do with their learning goals? It doesn’t. Let me be very clear: decisions about how to assess students with disabilities ought to be made at the school level by the dedicated team of educators who work with that student and their parents. Not by some bureaucrat who has never met the child.

I am not against tests—I’m against tests that make no sense. I’m against tests that don’t help students. It is clear to me that if a student has an IEP, then professional educators should be able to use their professional judgment to consider whether it’s appropriate to assess that student with a grade-level standardized test.

So here is my call to action: NEA urges the Department of Education to provide IEP teams the flexibility and decision-making capacity to do their jobs on behalf of their students. The Department of Education must allow schools to use whatever assessment process or method is most appropriate for each individual student based on their needs as indicated in their IEP.

That’s all.

Let the real experts determine how to assess students.


Related information on Individualized Education Plans here.

17 Responses to “Let the real experts determine how to assess students with disabilities”

  1. Louisa

    Ok. Standardized tests can be upsetting. But they are USEFUL.
    Parents and teachers should explain that there is no failing grade on a standardized test. Parents should never discuss or criticize the child’s score with the child. Parents should know unlike “normal” tests it is impossible for everyone or even large numbers of students to “ace” it. Standardized means that the tests are scored in a statistical manner. But the scores of a class together do show if content is taught and if it is taught well. Standardized tests are useful.

    • Jane

      Sorry Moni, I have to disagree. Today’s standardized tests are no longer a fair measure of what students know. They are now written tow reading levels above the grade taking the tests. The questions are not designed to test knowledge, they are designed to trick the students. If you have not done so, I URGE you to go to the Smarter Balanced website and take some to the practice tests at each grade level. If that does not change your mind, nothing will.

    • Jane

      Sorry Louisa, I have to disagree. Today’s standardized tests are no longer a fair measure of what students know. They are now written tow reading levels above the grade taking the tests. The questions are not designed to test knowledge, they are designed to trick the students. If you have not done so, I URGE you to go to the Smarter Balanced website and take some to the practice tests at each grade level. If that does not change your mind, nothing will.

    • Janice Whelan

      Louisa..you seemed to miss the point completely of the article. You would not pass a standardised reading comprehension test I am sorry to say.

    • r.h

      What role do you play in education? Standardized tests are not always aligned with the standards teachers are told to teach. The new FSA, the state test for Florida was deemed by Utah to be a flawed and fallible test that was not an accurate representation of what students know because the questions were not based on standards. Special needs students cannot work on grade level which is why they are pulled from the regular education classroom. If you truly want to test what a student had learned you do not give them an achievement based test you give them a diagnostic test at the beginning of the year and again at the end to see what they have learned. These tests hold children back in grades and can prevent them from graduation so yell scores count to the students. The scores come after school is out and is not useful to next year’s teachers because they evaluate a students ability during a strenuous time. Students test for weeks for hours at a time. Ask a teacher if they find these tests useful. Ask one

    • Alison

      Louisa, you have obviously never worked with special needs students since you have such a narrow minded view. I teach 4th grade self contained to students whose abilities range from k to on grade level in both reading and math. If their IEP states that they are functioning on a 1st grade reading level please explain how they are expected to take a 4th grade test? Which by the way isn’t even on a 4th grade reading level anymore, but that’s another story. Explain to me how one of my students who has all the hallmarks of bi-polar which runs in her family and has an IQ of 60 is expected to take the same tests as typical students. I put zero pressure on my students and ask only that they try their best since the state and idiots like you want them to be unfairly tested. Test my children to see that they are making progress, just use a test on their level. The little girl that I spoke about earlier is so emotionally fragile that she literally laid on the floor and screamed when we did a mock ELA standardized test that was too hard for her. She perceived that everyone else was doing a better job on the test. A test that was several grade levels above her abilities. My response? I called that mother and told her to opt her out of every state test for the rest of her educational career. Students with special needs should be tested, but on their level. Louisa, can I give you a standardized test in Mandarin and see how you do? That’s what it’s like for students with disabilities who already suffer from low self-esteem!

    • Haley

      Standardized tests are useful if each child in the class actually tries on the test and doesn’t just mark whatever. Standardized tests are useful if no children freeze up because they have test anxiety. Standardized tests are useful if every child in the class has the same intellectual abilities.

    • Lisa Brown

      Louisa, are you kidding me???????? Did you even bother to watch the video? Do you think that Ethan was accessing the regular education curriculum? Let’s ignore the fact that he was on his deathbed. He was functioning at the level of a 1 year old yet you think giving him a standardized test on what the students in regular education are learning in third grade makes sense for him? As the parent of a young man with an intellectual disability who was never able to be taught grade-level material, I had to sign off on the alternate assessment (also a joke and caused countless intensive special needs teachers to spend time putting together portfolios instead of using the IEP for documentation). Every year I would write a long narrative of how ridiculous the state assessment process was for students such as my son. I could not agree more with this article.

    • KD

      Nope. Standardized testing is about fitting into the majority, not seeing if any one individual fits into a box that some bureaucrat decided was normal.

    • Sally

      But there are failing grades on standardized tests. There is mandatory retention in third grade in Florida if you don’t meet minimum requirements on standardized testing. You can’t get a standard high school diploma in Florida unless you meet minimum requirements. You can fail standardized tests. If standardized tests are used in the way you describe, sure, they can be useful but that doesn’t seem to be the way they are used in Florida.

  2. Moni

    As a Special Education teacher, I couldn’t agree more. There are some courses in which students with disabilities are able to participate in the general education curriculum with modifications and specific goals of learning. In many cases, these courses have standardized tests associated with them. If the child cannot score on a proficient level, the student is required by law to take a remediation class. Now, lets stop and think about this. If the child was able to score proficient, he/she would not require special education services to begin with. So, the law is punishing students for having a learning disability on top of requiring them to take a tests they are not going to pass. I can honestly say that I am thrilled when my students score Basic. I believe that is the highest they will score and I’m proud of them for achieving that level. Why can’t everyone else be?

  3. Connie

    Thank you, Lily! I have taught special education for 35 years. My IEPs are carefully tailored to address each student’s needs. I do not need standardized tests to say whether or not my students are meeting a grade level standard. I can tell you far more about the instructional levels, learning styles, and needs of each of my students than any standardized test provides. Meanwhile, instruction is interrupted over and over again for testing. This is valuable time that should be used for learning, rather than testing. So often those same tests lead to frustration and put yet another ding in a student’s self-esteem, making learning even more challenging. I want to teach, not test.

  4. JB

    Until you personally have sat with a child who has no capability to respond to a test activity and until you have taken that child’s hand and physically guided that child through the motions (a valid prompt level in alternate testing for the severely disabled) you have no idea. You have no idea of the indignity that the you feel for the student or the futility for waste of time that could be spent on far more productive activity. The testing of these student is ONLY for the statistics. Try looking a child in the eye as he answers question after question with a blank stare, as he shrinks into himself and his shame, or perhaps even responds with aggression when the frustration gets too intense! But of course, the numbers are far more important!

  5. Michelle

    The reason disability and civil rights groups demand that the kids take those tests is because when they are given alternative tests they are sidelined by districts, schools, and teachers concerned with their evaluations and funding tied to test scores. Decisions about how to assess ALL students ought to be made at the school level by the dedicated team of educators who work with those children and their parents. Not by some bureaucrat who has never met the children.

  6. Alison

    Most states, including Florida have an alternative assessment for students with significant disabilities. It can consist of work samples or multimedia recordings of students completing activities that are related to the common core but heavily modified to the individual student’s needs. It’s up to the IEP team to determine if the student meets the criteria for this type of assessment.

    • Shannon

      This child the article is written about DID get the alternate assessment, which was still grossly inappropriate for his level. It asked about eating foods and playing…things he could not do.

  7. Greg

    When schools and teachers are evaluated on the basis of student performance on these tests, teachers are pressured to hold students individually accountable for their performance. Problems in education (a reflection of general societal problems) will never be “fixed” with these tests.


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