Saturday, March 16, 2013

Playing Fair in Education: Special Needs Students

Today is Friday, March 15, 2013, and once again, there is not much of the day left.

No Child Left Behind requires that 95% of the Special Education and English Language Learner populations be tested, because, after all, these are the kids who are being "left behind."  Schools are allowed to make "accommodations" for special needs students, such as large-print test booklets, small-group or one-on-one testing, extended time periods, use of American Sign Language or Braille, taking the tests on computers, or allowing an adult to mark the answers for kids who physically cannot bubble in their own (For example, the kids just circle their answers in the book, then a test proctor will bubble the answers in later.).  For math tests, the problems can be read aloud to the kids, since it's not a test of reading, per se. 

Despite these accommodations, many educators feel that standardized tests are unfair for these populations for a number of reasons.  First of all, the tests are geared to an arbitrary "grade level" standard.  But since many ELLs and all Special Ed kids (by definition) function one or more standard deviations blow the norm, a grade-level test will not tell you what they know.  Here's an example.  Let's say we want to know whether a child can make inferences.  If you give a child who is functioning at the second grade level a reading passage geared to fifth graders, he won't be able to read and understand the passage, much less make an inference about it.  But if you give him a second-grade reading passage, he will at least understand what he is reading.  If he gets the inference question right, then we know for sure he can make inferences.  If special ed and ELL populations were given tests at the grade level at which they can function, we would be able to tell a lot more about what they can and cannot do.

Another problem is that, particularly when compared with the general ed population who speak fluent English, it's very hard to measure progress of special ed kids and ELLs.  Most teachers agree that ELLs and special ed kids do make progress, and sometimes they make more progress than their peers in the "normal" group.  However, as one educator put it, "It does not matter if the teacher brings a kid from the first-grade reading level to the eleventh-grade reading level.  If the kid is in twelfth grade, the teacher still failed."  This is something to think about!   Keep in mind, also, that the test gets a little harder each year, so even if the child is making some progress, she may seem to be doing worse on the following year's test.

In the graphics above, which I created from data available on the St. Paul Public Schools web site, you can see that the latest percentages of ELLs and special ed students is 41% and 17%.  This is a pretty large chunk of the population.  In fact, for SPPS. white students are now a minority!  The percentage of races within the student body is as follows:  Caucasian 23.7%,  African American 29.6%, Asian American 31.4%, Latino 13.6%, and American Indian 1.8% .  Not all the Asians and Latinos are ELL students, but with a 41% ELL population, a majority of them are.  ELLs also included a few of the Black kids who hailed from various countries in Africa or the Middle East, and a few of the American Indian kids.  Another amazing demographic: SPPS students speak more than 100 languages and dialects.   And fully 73% of all the kids in the student body in K-12 qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.  The whole reason for the original version of No Child Left Behind back in the sixties was to improve school achievement for this very group of kids - the poor kids who qualified for free or reduced lunch!  As you can imagine, SPPS test scores generally fail to match those of the state as a whole, and they significantly lag behind those suburban and small-town school districts with much smaller populations of poor kids, kids of color, special ed kids, and ELLs.  Each year, a number of school buildings are on School Improvement Plans.  (There are 52 elementary schools, 23 middle schools, 26 high schools and five separate alternative learning programs.)  At least one school that I know of was "re-organized" because of consistently low performance in standardized tests.  The principal was removed, which made it hard for her to find another position within the district, and all the teachers were given pink slips, and told that if they wanted to continue to work in the school, they would have to re-apply for their job.  What a mess!

This brings up the issue of using tests scores to punish teachers, students and schools.  Although this was certainly not the original intent of the legislation, NCLB unrealistically requires all students to make progress at the same pace.  In addition, the focus is on punishing under-performing schools, rather than rewarding ones where students are doing well.  Schools who don't make "AYP" (adequate yearly progress) are generally put on a "school improvement plan."  What this means is that the administrator tells the teachers which subgroups of kids performed poorly on the test and efforts are stepped up to help this group of kids.  If, after several years, a school continues to fail to make adequate progress, it can be taken over, and the principal removed.  This system can backfire badly.

Here's a more specific example of what can happen.  A few years ago, Minnesota had a ranking system of stars.  A five-star school was the best.  One school I worked in, Chelsea Heights Elementary, was a five-star school for many years, so when other schools began to go on schoolwide improvement plans, Chelsea didn't have to make too many changes.  However, when the number of students of color and the ELL population went up, Chelsea's scores began to plummet.  One year in particular, we had about five Latino boys in the fifth grade.  Keep in mind that for the elementary schools, only the fifth-graders' scores were counted.  Five kids doesn't seem like much, but in a small school like Chelsea, the number of Latinos went up to the point where that "subgroup" of kids was considered in the ranking system.  All of these boys did poorly in math.  Each and every one of these kids happened to be new to the school in their fifth-grade year.  (Keep in mind that a large percentage of students who struggle in school are generally from poor families who end up moving around a lot for various reasons.  Maybe their parents can't keep a job, or they are constantly looking for a better job.  Maybe they can't afford a house or apartment, so they live with relatives for a while, until things start to go sour.  Maybe a woman realizes that her boyfriend is abusing her kids and decides to run to her sister's home on the other side of town.  Maybe the family has exhausted the welfare options in Chicago or Milwaukee and decides to try their luck in St. Paul.  Whatever.)  The MCA test was given in the spring, and the following fall, we were told how the kids had scored.  The Latino boys' poor math scores meant that Chelsea was only considered a three-star school.  NCLB regulations forced us to send a letter home to ALL the parents telling them that we were now only a three-star school, instead of a five-star one, and that they might want to consider sending their kids to a better-performing school.  Unfortunately, within the Saint Paul Public School District, there was only one school that was doing better than Chelsea and that was a so-called "magnet schools."  In the SPPS District, the magnet schools featured a particular focus, such as technology, fine arts, etc.  They were allowed to cap their enrollment and close the school to any new kids.  By contrast, "neighborhood" schools such as Chelsea Heights had to accept anybody who wanted to enroll.  That year, the magnet school that was doing better than Chelsea had already closed their classes to new enrollments, so unless the parents wanted to whip their kids out of public school and put them in an expensive private school, they had no options.  But there's more.  All those Latino boys started at Chelsea their sixth grade year, but every last one of them moved away during the sixth-grade year.  By the time the MCA test rolled around again in the spring, all of them were long gone. 

Here's another example from the town of Hutchinson, Kansas.  The school received what the administrator described as "frightening" test scores, and decided to cancel an all-school Halloween parade because of it.  A parade of this nature is simply a chance for the kids to wear their Halloween costume to school and to parade them for people to view.  It's usually pretty cute, and great fun for the kids, for whom Halloween is one of the most exciting holidays of the year.  According to the article, the parade was to be held in the afternoon.  They said that there would still be holiday activities in the classrooms, but they scrubbed the parade so that kids "use the time learning."   I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that this was viewed as a punishment by all the kids.  The ones who did do well in the test were punished for the scores of the ones who didn't do well,  and those kids who did poorly were publicly shamed.  Plus, what did the administration think they were going to accomplish in one afternoon, especially when they were still going to allow activities (read: parties) that afternoon in the classrooms, anyway?

As soon as I read this article, I decided to do a little investigation.  Why might the kids have done poorly?  Could it be that they had a lot of special ed kids or ELLs?  What was the racial make-up of the student body?   Keep in mind that for most schools, information from 2008 or 2009 is the latest data that is publicly available online.  That said, here's what I found.  Mccandless Elementary School, the school where the Halloween parade was cancelled, has an enrollment of about 450 kids.  66.1% are Caucasian, 11.1% are Black, 21.3% are Latino, 1.3% are American Indian, and .2% are Asian.  There were no data for ELLs at the elementary school, but for the district as a whole, there is a 5% ELL population.  The elementary has an 18.9% special ed population. But what really tells the story is how this school compares with the state of Kansas as a whole.  They have fewer whites (66.1% as opposed to 76.4% for the whole state), more Blacks (11.1% compared with 6.2% for the state), and way more Latinos (21.3% compared with 10.9% for the state).  Their American Indian population was the same percentage for the school as for the state, and the percentage of Asians was lower.  The percentage of kids on Free and Reduced Lunch is just about double the total for the state:  84.9% of the kids at Mccandless as opposed to only 42.8% in Kansas as a whole.  The special ed population at Mccandless is 18.9% compared with only 14.7% for the state.

So what probably happened?  Why were the test scores so "frightening"?  Well, duh!  With building demographics like the above, it's not exactly rocket science. Special ed kids, ELLs, at least some of the Latinos  and a vast majority of the kids on Free and Reduced Lunch probably got those poor scores.  So the whole school was punished.

When I worked at Como Park Elementary, we had a similar problem.  Our school was huge, back then, with about 1,000 kids in the building.  Every single nook and cranny was used for something in that building.  A majority of kids were on  Free and Reduced Lunch, and our demographics at the time were about 1/3 Caucasian, 1/3 Black and 1/3 Asian.  The ELLs were about 45% of the school population.  And because Como has special facilities for special ed, our school had a whopping 25% special ed population.  It's no wonder Como was one of the first schools to be put on "probation" as the schoolwide improvement plan was known in the district!

In the future, things will only get worse.  If you look at ELL statistics at SPPS over a period of time, you will get the sense of what is happening in all big-city school districts.   Back in 1990-91, while I was still in graduate school, the ELL population was only 12.9% of the K-12 student body.  That was 4,633 students.  I remember going to a job fair for pre-service teachers and being told by a Human Resources rep, "If you're an ELL teacher, we don't even want to talk to you.  We don't need any ELL teachers."  I remember being amazed at this lady's smugness.

Suddenly, things began to change.  By 1995-6, the ELLs were 16.9% of the student body, and the district was hiring new ELL teachers as fast as they could.  By 2005-6, when total  enrollments maxed out, ELLs comprised fully 40% of the student population.  Now, even though enrollment has dropped, ELLs are slightly more, about 41%.  This same sort of thing has happened in many big city schools across the nation.  Between the year 2000 and 2010, the population of Hispanics grew by 43%, while the U.S. population as a whole grew by only 9.7%.  During the same period, the population of Asians grew by 43% and the Black population grew by 12.3.%  The white, non-Latino population grew by only 4.9%.  The Native American population also grew by about 18.4%, double the growth of the population as a whole.

It is estimated that between 2010 and 2050, the Hispanic population in the U.S. will grow from 49.7 million to 132.8 million.  The group's share of the nation's population will almost double, from 16 percent in 2010 to 30 percent in 2050.  Asians' share of the population will double, from 4.7 percent to 7.8 percent.Although the Black population will continue to grow, it will stay at about 13%.  The Native American population will go from about 5.1 million (1.6% of the population) to 8.6 million in 2050. They will comprise about 2% of the total population by 2050.  It is also estimated that by 2050, nearly 1 in 5 people in the U.S. (19%) will be foreign-born, up from only 12% in 2005.  That means the ELL populations in schools will continue to grow. 

In the recent economic downturn, many families whose kids had never qualified for the program before suddenly qualified for the Free and Reduced Lunch Program.  In Roseville, MN, for example, the number of kids on the program rose by from 29% in 2006-7 to 44%.  Whether this growth trend will continue depends a lot on what we do now and in the coming years to bolster or destroy our economy.

No Child Left Behind is already unrealistic.  What will happen when the populations that tend to do poorly on standardized tests continue to grow?  I'm not even going to bother to answer that.  You know the answer. :-/

Sources for this blog:

Associated Press.  "Low Test Scores Doom School's Halloween Parade."  October 27, 2012.  

"McCandless Elementary School in Hutchinson, Kansas (KS)."  City  Accessed on March 15, 2013.

"No Child Left Behind."  PBS Newshour.  August 21, 2005.

Saunders, Rhys.  "After 10 Years, Educators Say No Child Left Behind is Unrealistic." (online version of The State Journal-Register).  January 15, 2012.

Treuer, Anton, Everything You Wanted to Know about Indians but Were Afraid to Ask  (2012) Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, MN.

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