In an August 21, 2015 Federal Register Notice that was released quietly without fanfare, (not that most FRN’s get widely publicized) the USDoED unilaterally denied states the right to develop alternative assessments for their special education students.
The Secretary amends the regulations governing title I, Part A of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, as amended (ESEA) (the “Title I regulations”), to no longer authorize a State to define modified academic achievement standards and develop alternate assessments based on those modified academic achievement standards for eligible students with disabilities.
These regulations are effective September 21, 2015.”
Those in the special ed community did notice and were very concerned. Dr. Francis Thompson of Utah took his concern a step further and gathered experts to review the notice and the supporting studies. What they found was a whole lot of nothing. Taking each of the Department’s eight “Statements of Fact” and reviewing the research, if any, cited to support the statements, the Early Life Child Psychology group concluded that:
Not one sentence, or article submitted in this compilation of papers by various state education agencies, supported (or even mentioned) the USDOE’s premise that alternative assessments should be eliminated for any population of public school students. In fact, multiple articles cited herein, suggested the need for further research on how to implement better alternative assessments for special education children in their respective states.
The following are highlights from the report, Primum Non Nocere: First Do No Harm. A link to the full document, with the detailed comments about the research cited by the USDoED, is provided at the end of this post.
Highlights of the Department’s Changes To The Existing Assessment Rules:
1. States may no longer define modified achievement standards for the vast majority of divergent learning students in public schools.
2. States may no longer develop alternative assessments based on modified achievement standards (with the exception of a small percentage of children ill defined and labeled “severely cognitively impaired”).
The Department of Education justified these new rule modifications from the prior 2007 rules based on new research that it claims supports the idea that all students with disabilities can perform on the same grade level as traditional students, and that students with disabilities can be tested fairly on the same test used by traditional students.
USDOE FINDING OF FACT #1:
“Since these regulations went into effect, additional research has demonstrated that students with disabilities who struggle in reading and mathematics can successfully learn grade-level content and make significant academic progress when appropriate instruction, services, and supports are provided.”
Summary & Conclusion:
This peer-reviewed study cited by the USDOE, as “evidence” that all special education students “struggling in reading and mathematics” can “successfully learn grade level content,” is a claim that is clearly not supported.
Specifically, the subject of math was not examined, no Kindergarten through Grade 5 students were part of this meta-analysis, and an extremely limited number of emotionally disabled, African American, Latino, or Pacific Islanders were examined.
USDOE FINDING OF FACT #2:
“In addition, nearly all States have developed new college- and career-ready standards and new assessments aligned with those standards. These new assessments have been designed to facilitate the valid, reliable, and fair assessment of most students, including students with disabilities who previously took an alternate assessment based on modified academic achievement standards.”
Research Cited To Support the USDOE’s Factual Finding #2:
Scope & Limitations of Cited Research:
NOT APPLICABLE. NO INDEPENDENT RESEARCH CITED.
Summary & Conclusion:
Not one of the Common Core testing consortia funded by grants from the U.S. Department of Education, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (SBAC, PARCC, AIR) who designed these new Common Core assessments, has published independently reviewed validity data on special education students (or any students for that matter).
“Validity”, simply put, is the process of providing empirical evidence that a
designed test performs as it’s stated purpose.
In the absence of such documentation, it is reasonable to conclude that the
USDOE of educations statement in this regard, has no basis in truth, and to
change policies based on this assertion is a potentially dangerous and far-reaching violation of ethics in the fields of psychology and psychometrics.1
USDOE FINDING OF FACT #5:
“Research demonstrates that low-achieving students with disabilities who struggle in reading  and low achieving students with disabilities who struggle in mathematics  can successfully learn grade-level content when they have access to high-quality instruction.”
Research Cited To Support the USDOE’s Factual Finding #5 (Reading): Allor, J. H., Mathes, P. G., Roberts, J. K., Cheatham, J.P., & Champlin, T. M.(2010). Comprehensive reading instruction for students with intellectual disabilities. Psychology in the Schools, 47, 445- 466
Scope & Limitations of Cited Research:
1. Extremely small sample size of study participants. Only three students were used: (“Three students were selected based on teacher recommendation and difficulty in transferring skills on progress monitoring measures. The participants were Justin, Grace, and Kristen. Justin was an 8-year-old Hispanic male with an IQ of 52. Grace was a 10-year-old Hispanic female with an IQ of 59. Kristen was a 12-year-old African American female with an IQ of 45.”) P.348
Summary & Conclusion:
Given the small sample size, as well as the other serious limitations in this study provided above, an attempt by the USDOE to utilize such psychometrically weak and/or non existant evidence to support broad claims that all students with disabilities can read at grade level with proper instruction, is fanciful at best, and deliberately deceitful at worst.
USDOE FINDING OF FACT #6:
“the developers of the new generation of assessments considered the needs of students with disabilities to ensure that the assessments are designed to allow those students to demonstrate their knowledge.”
Conclusion: Evidence strongly suggests that the above-named testing consortia and developers, supported by tax payers’ dollars, may in fact be in the midst of the largest, most comprehensive experimentation –as defined by the Ethics Code of the American Psychological Association– on American public school children, in our nation’s history.
If, in fact, independent investigations confirm this well-grounded theory, the U.S. Department of Education, and Secretary Arne Duncan, are in violation of multiple APA (American Psychological Association) assessment and experimentation ethics codes. (See APA Ethics Codes 8.02 “Informed Consent to Research” & 8.07 “Deception in Research” & 9.03 “Informed Consent In Assessments”
The basic foundational purpose of conforming assessment and research practices to ethics codes is to ensure that vulnerable populations, such a special education students, are not exploited and/or harmed.
How ethical is it to require every public school student in the country to take an experimental test, without their informed written consent; a test that has yet to undergo independent validity reviews by any organization free of contractual ties to either the U.S. Department of Education or the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation?
Educators do not yet have the science to know how to teach most of these standards to students with moderate and severe developmental disabilities. At the present time little is known about how much academic content students with moderate and severe learning and emotional disabilities can learn in traditional
public school settings.
Common sense, as well as decades of peer-reviewed research in the areas of cognitive and developmental psychology, indicates strongly that restricting students to curricula beyond their cognitive capacities substantially lowers their achievement
In fact it is unfair, discriminatory and unethical to require any student to take a test that, by all accounts, is an experimental design that has yet to undergo extensive, independent validity reviews. There should be candor not only about what is known about these high stakes, computer adaptive assessments, but also about what is unknown. (LORAN Commission, 1988, p. 27) (LORAN Commission. (1988). Report of the LORAN Commission to the Harvard Community Health Plan: Harvard Community Health Plan, Boston, MA.)
These “lies of omission,” perpetuated and sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education under the leadership of Secretary Duncan, will continue to have dangerous consequences for traditionally “test vulnerable” African American, Latino, Pacific Islander, autistic, dyslexic, dual-exceptional, poverty-stricken, and emotionally disturbed children who are enrolled in public and charter schools across the country.
It is the ultimate height of hypocrisy for an Education Department Secretary to insist on “evidence” based conformity to unilateral rule changes, and then make massive special education rule changes based on cited references which appear to have been pulled blindly out of the magician’s hat.
A shift from the dictatorial-like control now emanating from the Department of Education, and supported by Big Testing’s financial corporate interests– back to states, local school districts, and ground level teachers and parents– is the foundation from which all hope and change in our nation’s education system must start.
Dr. Thompson titled his report, First Do No Harm, which is a statement I have had in my author profile for three years as an oath I hoped teachers would take. I need to update my profile to recommend that policy developers should also take this oath.