STAAR: One Size Does Not Fit All
Being a special education teacher for more than 12 years in Texas has afforded me many opportunities to experience students’ success. Day-to-day victories, both large and small, are rewards for what I do in my professional life.
But the ugly truth of the matter is that special education students are set up for failure from the start. Ironically, the guidelines that are meant to help our students succeed are called the Every Student Succeeds Act and Free and Appropriate Public Education. Despite what we claim to be working toward, we are not setting special education students up for success. Students in sixth grade who are working on a second- or third-grade educational level are asked to perform at their enrolled grade level on annual high-stakes tests.
This poses many problems for students, parents, teachers, administrators, and school districts. Year after year, my special education students make progress in academics and functions, but upon hearing that they “did not meet standards,” these students are crushed. Their self-esteem, spirit, excitement for learning, and motivation are obliterated. Yet again, these students feel labeled as a failure. It doesn’t matter if their teacher tells them how much they’ve grown and improved. They still feel it wasn’t enough.
Accommodations are put in place for special education students to help “level the playing field.” But this is impossible to do when you are talking about comparing achievement levels for a student with a severe disability vs. a non-disabled student. Why are the passing standards the same? Why are these students expected to achieve well beyond their capabilities? Why are teachers, parents, and schools put in a position to make a student feel inferior when they are doing the best they can? Why are we as a society squelching young people’s spirits with an unattainable, unrealistic goal of passing a test well above their cognitive ability? The result is that students have anxiety and feel like a failure and teachers are judged. Administrators ask teachers to adjust and work on the areas where students scored the lowest instead of considering what is best for each individual student.
In today’s world, there isn’t a perfect solution, but I propose bringing back a State-Developed Alternative Assessment that shows the level of improvement made in a given school year. With this type of assessment, students are taught and tested on the level they are at and are expected to make progress accordingly. Standards are set early in the school year, and goals and benchmarks are put into place to guide instruction and assessment throughout the year. An appropriate assessment allows for students to feel successful and positive about themselves. It helps them focus on what they are able to do without the constant reminders of what they struggle with. This type of assessment allows teachers to modify instruction to fit the individual needs of each student. Meeting students where they are, instead of teaching above their abilities, will prevent frustration and confusion on the part of students, teachers, and parents.
All students can learn and make progress. Nobody should have the right to mandate just how fast that progress should be.
Cindi Fields is a special education teacher who has taught in Texas for 14 years, 12 of them in special education. As a mother, she understands parents' and teachers' perspectives on standardized tests.