Workshop Summary: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform
To help understand the perspectives of those representing students with disabilities as well as those of the policy makers and educators implementing standards-based reform, the committee held a one-day workshop on October 27, 1995. Eleven representatives from groups based in Washington, D.C., made brief presentations organized around three questions posed by the committee in its letter of invitation:
What does the group you represent see as the two or three major, unresolved issues related to standards-based reform and students with disabilities?
Under what conditions would standards and assessments, as they are currently being defined nationally and in the states, be most likely to benefit students with disabilities?
What will be required to include students with disabilities fully in standards, assessment, and accountability systems? What are the incentives and disincentives to do so?
The presenters then participated in an informal discussion with the committee and answered members' additional questions. This appendix summarizes the presentations.
The first group of presenters represented organizations that work on behalf of people with disabilities. Christopher Button, the director of governmental activities for the United Cerebral Palsy Association (UCPA), was the first presenter. Button argued that children with disabilities deserve access to school, which means access to the general curriculum and the accountability system. She views the low standards that accompany the labeling and stereotyping of children with disabilities as a major hindrance to their learning. Inclusion is the answer to
this problem. She pointed out that Kentucky has been successful in this area because it has included the overwhelming majority of its students in the state assessment. Agreeing that family involvement is critical to student success, Button noted that currently families participate through the individualized education program (IEP) process, although the nature of their involvement varies considerably. She was uncertain about what mechanisms could be used under standards-based reform to involve parents. UCPA sees technology as providing some of the answers to individualizing curriculum and assessments for students with disabilities. Although children with disabilities should be part of the general curriculum, Button thought that the standards would have to be operationalized individually for some children.
The second presenter was Eileen Ahearn, a senior policy analyst for the National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDE). Ahearn also emphasized the participation of children with disabilities in standards and assessments. She commented on the problem of the lack of consistency from school to school in how disabilities are defined and children with disabilities are treated. In her view, greater access to assessments is an effective way of bringing accountability to special education programs. It would emphasize the measuring of learning outcomes rather than only monitoring inputs, such as the number of teachers with appropriate certification. Ahearn argued that: ''there needs to be accountability, student by student, for individual student outcomes…. Schools really are responsible for the achievement of every student who is there. It is important that schools be required to accommodate—and to modify in order to accommodate—the needs of every individual student."
She also stressed the need for research on the effects of including children with disabilities in the general education program. She admitted that the integration of the IEP-based system with a standards system would be tricky because students with disabilities are often viewed as part of a different curriculum—one conceived of as a "drill and practice program" or in some way separate from the general curriculum. She believes that the IEP should be retained, but that it should be based on the system standards. If adjustments need to be made, they could be made in such areas as the length of time over which students are expected to meet the standards or through accommodations in testing. Ahearn sees including children with disabilities in the standards reforms as helping to change the attitude that schools are not responsible for students with disabilities in the same way they are for other students. She acknowledged, however, that it will be difficult to create incentives that encourage this attitude change. Similarly, she acknowledged that currently there were no solutions to how a standards system might accommodate students who meet performance standards at a slower pace than expected.
The third presenter, Nancy Safer, is the interim executive director of the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC). Safer sees students with disabilities as a good test case for standards: if standards-based reform cannot work for them
and for other at-risk students, it probably should not be implemented. "So one of the things we have to talk about is what are the implications of [a] standards-based assessment that does not work for 25 to 33 percent of our students." Solving the problem of standards for students with disabilities has implications for a much broader range of students.
She is concerned about creating accommodations for standardized tests; for instance, do accommodations automatically mean that the tests are no longer standardized? However, she suggested that if standards were more generalized they would necessarily include more students. "If your standards were organized around big ideas or big concepts, then you have some choices as to how refined within those concepts you organize [the] particular … content that you are trying to assess." However, too often, the standards are defined narrowly from a disciplinary perspective, rather than broadly, on the basis of the skills and knowledge people need in life. Safer agreed that, if assessments were viewed as report cards for the schools, there would be an incentive to exclude children with disabilities from the assessments.
The fourth presenter, Joseph Ballard, is the director of CEC's department of public policy. Ballard is mainly concerned with questions of how federal, state, and local programs will interact. Like other presenters, he also thinks that standards-based reform will be an effective way of including children with disabilities in the general curriculum. In his view, adjustments to standards and assessments for children with disabilities should be made within the context of the IEP. CEC advocates that the standards curriculum and assessments be specifically referenced in students' IEPs.
The final presenter in the first group was Speed Davis, the executive assistant to the chair of the National Council on Disability. Davis argued that the participation of children with disabilities in standards-based reform would help all students. "If it is done right, if it is done well, if it is done with the right attitude, inclusionary education not only works well for children with disabilities but it works for the entire school and the entire school system." He believes that the biggest barriers are societal attitudes about people with disabilities and funding mechanisms that encourage the segregation of children with disabilities.
The group discussion that followed these presentations ranged from support for participation to family involvement. Button said, "The IEP too often, because it is not tied to the general curriculum, results in a watered-down curriculum because of the automatic assumptions that general educators and special educators too often have about the children, particularly children with severe disabilities, as not being able to do the general curriculum." She maintained that the participation of children with disabilities in standards-based reform could help solve this problem, and that giving these students more time to achieve some of the standards would be a useful accommodation.
The participants agreed that the definition of participation depends on the definition of the general curriculum. Safer is concerned that, if states devise
alternative content for children with disabilities, they could effectively exclude them from the standards. Rather, she advocates "representing as much as possible very discrete levels relative to acquisition of particular concepts, so that everyone fits within [them] rather than trying to come up with really different content." Ahearn added that "the broad standards, if they are well chosen and comprehensive and yet at the right level … should apply to everyone. It is when you move to the specification that you get the differentiation … into an entirely separate curriculum for a very small percentage of students."
Safer is concerned about the comparability of assessments that have been adjusted for children with disabilities. She believes the key to accommodations is to ensure that knowledge is accurately measured without interference from the way it was expressed. Ahearn acknowledged the technical problems in adjusting assessments.
The participants agreed that the way assessment results are reported will affect many things, including how people feel about the participation of children with disabilities. The suggestion was made that schools be judged on how well they do in improving the performance of students with disabilities as well as a range of other students. The presenters also agreed that families need to be involved but were uncertain about the best mechanism to facilitate this participation, particularly since parental involvement in such decisions as whether a student should be included in a state assessment was not part of the concept of family involvement when the IEP process was first designed.
The second group of presenters represented organizations of education policy makers and practitioners with an interest in standards and the participation of students with disabilities. The first presenter in this group was John Barth, a senior education associate at the National Education Goals Panel. Barth noted that there are now unofficial standards that are lower for children with disabilities. He believes that including children with disabilities in explicit, official standards would help solve the problem. In his view, "IEPs have become wonderful process documents, but have ceased to be educational documents." However, he said that, if standards were fully implemented, educators would have to acknowledge that all students learn in different ways and at different paces. "If we are genuinely committed to our standards and in raising every child to that level of performance, then we are going to have to treat almost every child with an IEP." He acknowledged that this might be impractical in the long term because of a lack of resources.
Barth drew on the New Standards project, a consortium of states and local districts, to argue that standards include five different components: (1) content standards, (2) performance standards, (3) scoring rubrics defining what performance is good enough to demonstrate mastery of the standards, (4) benchmark examples of student work, and (5) feedback on those benchmarks. In his view, children with disabilities should be included in the first two components of standards, but the final three components should be treated more flexibly. He be-
lieves that the standards debate is still focused on the first component of standards and needs to get beyond it and the second component before accommodations for children with disabilities can be discussed. "It seems to me it is inherently unfair not to have high expectations for all students."
Barth also believes that the participation of children with disabilities in standards-based reform would help hold educators responsible for these students' learning and performance. "I am fearful that if we allow the exclusion of certain categories of children from the assessment process that we will destroy the feed-back loop for them and, secondly, we will allow school systems and schools, who are going to be held politically accountable for their performance, to push those students who threaten to lower their scores out of the test loop, off to the side, and conceivably ignore them."
The second presenter was John MacDonald, the director of the state leadership center for the Council of Chief State School Officers. MacDonald argued that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is not connected to national reform legislation. In his view, the IDEA's policy framework keeps students with disabilities separate from state and local development of standards-based reform in classrooms. Students with disabilities are still viewed primarily as a special population…. What will be required is one standard for all children, not the dual standard afforded by the current legislation and imposed on the states and local districts by IDEA and the U.S. Department of Education.
MacDonald sees the current incentive system as favoring the exclusion of children with disabilities, but agreed that their participation in standards would help hold educators accountable for special education. He thinks that Goals 2000 is a useful backup for what states wanted to do already. "I liken Goals 2000 to a federal block grant to states and local districts to leverage what they want to do, what [they] are doing anyway." In contrast, he noted the growing perception that, because special education has been underfunded by the federal government, it represents a threat to the fiscal stability of the general education program in states and localities. In his view, to the extent that local education budgets have to compensate for declining federal and state revenues, communities will see the inclusion of students with disabilities in standards as another burden, and "it is my belief that you are going to really hear a huge outcry."
The third presenter was Shirley Schwartz, representing the Council of Great City Schools. Schwartz also favors including children with disabilities in standards-based reform. One of her organization's concerns is the overrepresentation of minority, poor, and limited-English-proficient students in special education. She is also concerned about adding more disability categories to the IDEA because member districts report that certain student behaviors lead to socially constructed categories of disability. Consequently, additional categories will place urban students at risk for that type of identification. In addition, the council has found that the IEP process often does not work because "it focuses on procedural compliance and provides no measure of student progress." She feels that includ-
ing standards in the IEP would help keep special education programs accountable. The council views multiple assessment measures and more authentic assessments as a "potent tool for equity."
Although Schwartz believes that overall participation is necessary, there may still be students with disabilities who need to be in nonacademic programs. "We see the need to develop some different goals and different standards focused on such things as independent living and self-determination." She emphasized the need for networking, professional development, and the flow of information across districts so that educators could learn from each other.
The fourth presenter in this group was Patricia Sullivan, the director of education legislation for the Committee on Human Resources at the National Governors Association. Sullivan said that governors are frustrated with the IDEA for two reasons: it is an unfunded mandate, and there is no flexibility at either the state or the local level. However, the governors support the participation of students with disabilities in standards-based reform. "There was very much a willingness to do that, particularly in exchange for some sort of flexibility, whatever that may be, and it is often undefined, just the perception of trying to get some ability to have some influence over how this program works at the state and local levels." Sullivan noted that, beginning with their education summit in Charlottesville in 1989, the governors have supported the concept of high standards for all students. "There was a coming together around that word very deliberately, but probably not an understanding of how far we had to go to do that and what it would take for all students to be able to achieve the highest standards."
Jeff Schneider, a senior policy analyst at the National Center for Innovation in the National Education Association (NEA), was the next presenter. The NEA also supports the participation of children with disabilities in standards-based reforms, but only when it is done well. That means four things. First, teachers should be adequately trained to deal with students with disabilities. Second, there is effective advocacy by parents of students with disabilities and by organizations working on behalf of children with disabilities. Third, adequate resources are available to ensure that money spent on children with disabilities does not worsen conditions for other students. Fourth, national health insurance is needed to make certain that children with disabilities have adequate health care. Schneider sees three issues raised by Goals 2000: whether the notion of all students meeting higher standards means children with disabilities; who decides about modifications in the standards; and on what basis those modifications are made. He agreed that there would be strong incentives for schools to exclude children with disabilities. He also suggested that it may be necessary to have the same guidelines on criteria for excluding students with disabilities from standards and assessment across states so that state-by-state comparisons will be accurate.
Barbara Huff, the executive director of the Federation of Families for Children's Mental Health, was the final presenter. Huff spoke about children with
mental health or emotional problems. In her view, discussing standards is premature for this population because the immediate task is to keep these children in school. "Until people get committed to keeping our kids in school, [standards are] … the last on the list of priorities right now, with some of the things we are facing." She feels this population is intellectually capable of being part of the standards and assessments, but that it needs more support in the day-to-day learning process. She also believes that social and emotional development should be assessed as well as content standards. Unlike other populations that might be overclassified as having disabilities, Huff indicated that schools are less likely to identify students with emotional disorders as disabled. "There is also a lack of early identification and systematic intervention."
She emphasized the need to train school personnel adequately to handle emotional and behavioral problems. "In other words, steps will have to be taken to ensure that our children are academically challenged. Steps will have to be taken to ensure that our children attend school. Steps will have to be taken to ensure that our children are not discarded and that there is a zero reject principle: Schools cannot give up on our kids." Huff argued that the community also needs to be part of the support system for children with emotional and behavioral problems. "I do not believe that it is totally the schools' responsibility for the supports and services that begin to accommodate kids in schools."
Huff added, "I think it is going to take more than standards-based assessment to reverse the devastating trends and practices that currently result in poor outcomes for children with serious emotional disturbances. However, standards that are formulated with system change in mind can provide the impetus to help schools begin to address the issue in a comprehensive fashion."
In the general discussion that followed the formal presentations, the group discussed definitions of standards, accommodations, jurisdictional questions, and teacher training. In discussing standards, Schwartz said children with disabilities are included in the development of standards and assessments but she still sees an ongoing disconnect between IEPs and high, general standards. Barth added, "My read on all of the national standards documents is they all got it wrong. They are all too detailed and too explicit for a set of national standards, which should have been a simple articulation of what the nation thinks kids need to know in each of these various areas. Then the states would add more detail to that process." Schwartz agreed, saying that she thought local districts need to adjust state standards to local needs. MacDonald thinks that the IDEA is too top-down, restricting local decision making. He sees this arrangement as prolonging the debate on standards.
In response to the discussion about accommodating students with disabilities within a standards framework, committee member Daniel Koretz said, "I am frankly … puzzled [about] what a standard would like that accommodates students without differentiating among them." The presenters were also puzzled. Schwartz added: "I think the point is not to lower expectations." Barth reiterated
that the commonality among all students would be on the level of the content and the performance components of the standards and that the adjustments would be made on the other three components. MacDonald added that "the essence of instruction is reaching each youngster. That requires differentiation." Barth thinks it might be helpful to look at standards in terms of progress from a baseline. He also commented that adjustments should be made, not by lowering the standards, but by giving an individual child more time and more resources.
Barth emphasized the need for teacher training. He said that there is insufficient federal financial assistance for the professional development of special education teachers because the large majority of it goes to general education teachers. Schneider agreed on the importance of teacher training, adding that schools also need to be reformed from the beginning levels on. "What we are kind of shooting for with kids is that all kids will have a small 'IEP,' because every child should have an individualized education, and the only way to do that is to have the decision-making patterns in the school allow that to happen." He also feels that, because of high turnover in principals and superintendents, the emphasis for change needs to be placed on teachers. The key is to ensure that decisions are based on what is best for students rather than for any other group.
The group agreed that standards and the participation of children with disabilities would have important political consequences. MacDonald said, "I think the states are very, very wary of setting any kind of standards that they feel cannot be met or are going to end up having the state look less adequate in terms of what it is providing." Sullivan added that there are problems with political accountability because short-term or one-term governors will not be around to see standards fully implemented. Barth is concerned that using assessment results too much for accountability purposes will ignore the feedback for students. He believes that the primary function of standards and assessments should be tracking student progress rather than school progress. Sullivan thinks that implementation decisions will and should be made at the local rather than the state or federal levels. MacDonald agreed: "I think the faster we free up the system to be able to allow the locals to do this kind of stuff, the better off we are going to be."