May 5, 2009
TAKS is the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. It's a standardized test given to primary and secondary public school students to assess their skills in writing, reading, science, math and social studies. No extra points awarded for roping and riding skills, sadly. It's tied to No Child Left Behind and federal dollars for schools and whatnot, and therefore it is apparently a Very Big Deal. We first began hearing about it during Schuyler's orientation, back during the summer, and not just casually mentioned, either. TAKS anxiety began in a very real way seven months before the testing began.
Standardized testing presents a host of problems to neurotypical kids, but for kids with special needs, those problems become even more problematic. In the case of the TAKS test, there is a modified version for kids like Schuyler, one that contains the same information but has modifications such as larger font sizes, fewer items per page, fewer answer choices and simpler sentence structure. There's also a more profoundly modified TAKS test for students with significant cognitive disabilities. Federal guidelines for NCLB require that all students, including special education students, take the test, and at their grade level rather than their ability level. No exceptions.
I don't know. On one hand, I feel like if we're really going to get behind the idea of inclusion, then I suppose being subjected to these horrible tests along with the neurotypical student population might just be part of that deal. And yet, it feels wrong to me. These are kids whose every educational experience has to be approached carefully and individually. Federal law requires the schools to develop an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) for every kid with a disability. These plans are carefully crafted by the student's entire support team, including the parents and sometimes the actual student, so that the particulars of that child's disability are addressed. Now we're asked to believe that a single version of a standardized test that has been universally modified is going to fit the needs of every special needs student in the big dumb state of Texas? You think? Because if it turns out that they're all broken in exactly the same way, that's certainly going to save a lot of people a lot of work.
The word that I'm getting is that these kids aren't doing well on these tests, modified or not, and that they are being demoralized by the experience. I'm not sure what we're hoping to gain from compelling special education students to take a test that many of them are simply unable to complete, not due to a lack of trying or an academic deficit, but because a disability interferes with their ability to sort through questions designed for neurotypical kids at their grade level. We add to the already daunting pile of frustrations that they face every day in school and in life, frustrations that we can't even begin to understand. What do we hope to accomplish from this? In what way does this benefit the students? We don't learn anything about the quality of the school or the teachers from these tests. We simply become one more little vampire, draining away another pint or two of hard-won self-esteem, and all for what amounts to phony educational window-dressing. Julie and I call this kind of thing "macaroni art".
Back when we lived in New Haven and she attended a general special education "Life Skills" class, little Schuyler would bring home these elaborate arts and crafts projects, ornate and sometimes even beautiful (inasmuch as art made from macaroni can be beautiful), but clearly not created by Schuyler. Every now and then, there would be some awkwardly placed scribble or randomly glued blob of paper on an otherwise pristine art piece, and we could see Schuyler's contribution. Macaroni art became a big joke to us, the idea that her teachers believed that it was in everyone's best interest -- theirs, Schuyler's and perhaps ours most of all -- to send home something clean and pretty and irrelevant. It was one of the most tangible indications that we needed to move.
Now we're in a different world, one where Schuyler is being challenged. But I honestly can't see how the TAKS test has any educational value. It's not a challenge so much as an obstacle. Despite her good classroom grades, Schuyler apparently didn't pass these tests, and didn't come very close.
Schuyler is on track to complete school and perhaps graduate one day. That sounds like a miracle, or even a dream to us. But there's a reality to be faced, too, and it's the same one faced by countless other families trying to make their way in mainstream education with broken children. Schuyler is going to get there, I truly believe it, but the obstacles she faces and has faced all along are slowing her down. Her curriculum is modified, and although she's thrown into the mix of neurotypical third graders, she's not there with them. Not entirely. Not yet. When she gets there, it will be at her own pace, and that pace is going to be determined by her teachers and her parents and most of all by Schuyler. But her monster gets a vote, too.
Fortunately, I finally found out yesterday, her advancement to the next grade level is an issue that will be decided by her ARD (Admission, Review and Dismissal) Committee, not the TAKS test. The ARD Committee determines what services a special education student requires from the school district, via the IEP. It consists of (among possible others) her special ed teacher, her mainstream teacher, her SLPs, an administrator (usually the principal), and us, by golly. So at the very least, we're not expecting to be caught unaware if there's a decision to hold her back. That could be a contentious meeting -- God knows we used to have THOSE on a depressingly regular basis, back at Schuyler's old school near a city whose name I won't mention but which rhymes with "Boston" and is full of hipsters, and, well, is called Austin -- but at least we won't find out from a letter in the mail.
Grade level advancement is a tough issue, because on one hand, we want her to advance, and she desperately wants to as well. She talks about fourth grade all the time now, even though we've been extremely careful not to ever mention it in front of her. If she gets held back, it's going to be a bitter disappointment to her. And it would be difficult to explain to her, after doting on her good grades all year, to then have to turn around and tell her she's not ready. But at the same time, if she moves on and she's not ready, it could all come crashing down in the future.
After the amazing year Schuyler had last year in second grade, I think we felt this year like we could finally relax. We didn't need to be the ever-present parents, looming overhead and trying to monitor Schuyler's day-to-day progress. But even though we trust her teachers now and feel very positive about her school situation, I nevertheless feel like we might have dropped the ball, particularly where her mainstream class experience was concerned.
At one point, we were discouraged by a teacher from getting involved in a project that was being done "in school". What Schuyler ended up with felt like macaroni art. Julie and I promised each other afterwards that we would never agree to something like that again. Ever. Occasionally we hear from teachers who say, "I wish there were more parents who get involved like you guys do!" And while I appreciate that, I also sometimes think, "Really? Are you sure about that?"
We were so happy that she was getting A's and B's in her modified curriculum that I think we neglected to get as involved as we should have this year. And I don't think Schuyler's modified curriculum was inappropriate, not here, in a special education program that is the envy of most schools not just in Texas but nationally as well. I suspect the education she's receiving exceeds what most special education students are getting. But we believe she can do better, much better, and I'm starting to think that in some way, perhaps small but still significant, Julie and I might have let Schuyler down this year.
Next year will have to be different.