Tuesday, July 31, 2012

lightbulb

Sometimes I meet people or read something that offers a view or an opinion that feels like someone has shone a light up in my attic of a brain and formerly bleak areas are that little bit lighter as a result of the interaction. I love those moments.

There are friends that I have met who have enriched my worldview by sharing theirs with me. Others I find I don't particularly agree with but I still enjoy listening to and thinking about their perspective. I respect their opinions.

This week I was browsing special ed journals and I found a gem of just such an article. It is "Accessibility to NAPLAN Assessments for Students With Disabilities: A 'Fair Go' by Michael Davies of Griffith University. It is a current one being published this year.

Reading through it makes me consider more carefully a decision we made rather blithely last year. Our school principal asked if we wanted Hannah's report to use the same grading as her peers. Now Hannah has an IEP and so long as her report is based on that I am happy. Who needs to see a row of Es to know their child has an intellectual disability - nevermind how she would feel should it ever occur to her to look at those grades and understand what they indicated.

So I promptly said 'no thanks' to that standard report happy to have been consulted. I did not have a second thought about it until I found Davies' article.  In fact the gist of the article is that it is inequitable that students with disabilities are most likely to be excluded from participating in the national assessments (Naplan) that take place in years 3, 5, 7 and 9. Naplan assesses performance in reading, writing, language conventions (spelling, grammar and punctuation) and numeracy. According to Davies approx 5% of the student population, that is about 50 000 students do not sit for the exam. What does this figure tell us about inclusive education.

Naplan is still in its early days and not without it's contraversies. What is it's purpose? To name and shame schools? To make schools accountable? To place pressure on parents who might be tempted to 'coach' their children? I am pretty sure that I'll be one of the parents that buys the preparing for your naplan book from the post office and spend time prepping Kit for it next year. Is it to dominate the focus of the classroom at the expense of broader curriculum? And if so is that necessarily an unacceptable phenomena? According to Davies it should be able to provide reliable national data on the learning outcomes of our kids so that initiatives and funding can be used more effectively to respond to areas of demonstrated weakness.

My experience of the process is limited because my children are still in year 2. I have heard parents discussing our school results in naplans past and comparing them to similar schools. The analysed datails available on the My School website. I know the school itself spends time analysing the results to inform best practice and no doubt to damage control the marketing too...

The purpose of the article was to raise awareness of the number of students with disabilities or additional needs who do not sit the national assessments - and to promote change in practices so that 'all students with a disability are included'. Why? I asked myself. Why? Davies states the plan for good quality data being available to improve student outcomes. If that is the focus then indeed why ignore students with special education needs?

Well - Davies says that we have approx 3.5% of students having a disability. Increasingly these students are attending inclusive education environments or 'regular schools'. At the same time we have legislation to protect students with a disability from discrimination in education. The focus is on 'reasonable adjustments' - and the standard that these adjustments should be made if possible to enable the student with the disability to participate. Schools are also required to provide a minimum of support for the student with the disability. Indeed there have been a number of cases taken to HREOC (Australian Human Rights Commission) regarding adequacy of adjustments made.

There are 2 categories for those students who don't sit for the test - exempt and withdrawn. The standard naplan policy is that students may qualify for exemption from one or more of these tests because of 'significant intellectual and/or functional disability' However the preference is for students with disabilities to sit for the examination if their parent/carer prefers.  Principals are required to consult with parents in matters of expemption. Exempt students are judged to have achieved at a level 'below national minimum standard' and are reported in this group alongside peers who did sit for the examination.

NSW states that students with disabilities or difficulties in learning are expected to participate in testing. However parents have the right to withdraw their children form testing. This is a different category and these students are not reported in that they are grouped with students who were absent or suspended.

The characteristics of the students who are exempt or withdrawn is not collected. What the data does show is that of the approx 5% who do not sit the tests in Years 3 and 5 - approx 1.5 - 2% are 'exempted' whereas approx 3 - 3.5% are 'withdrawn'. The numbers not assessed increases in Years 7 and 9 - the number of expemptions is between 1 - 1.5% and the withdrawals 2.6-6%. (Davies p68) The significance of this is that the withdrawals are not included in the data that is crunched onto the My School website. Schools who wish to minimise the 'perceived negative impact of students with disabilities on the percentage of their students achieving national minimum standards' might be encouraged to 'withdraw' the child from testing altogether. (Davies p68)

This situation threatens the education of 'poor performing' students. The article sites examples of school principals etc being offered financial incentives for improving their school's performance profile in these tests. For individual teachers greater emphasis is given to training students for these tests than the broader curriculum - surely this means the students who are exempt or withdrawn are vulnerable to being sidelined in the learning environment.

So why should parents of children with a disability care? The danger highlighted is that the accountability for our students is compromised by this shortfall in the assessment tool. The idea of being outsiders in a mainstream world is reinforced by such marginality. There is no national benchmark, no longitudunal data to track progress, to plan and address for improved learning outcomes. The whole purpose of assessments - for learning, as learning and of learning is undermined. Students with disabilities become less important to the school curriculum. Their academic achievement a reduced priority. Food for thought. I am still mulling it over. I have my eye out as Hannah would say and will be reading more on this with interest. For the moment I am happy to put it on my radar as a point worthy of consideration. I am working through what this might mean for Hannah and more broadly for students receiving special education services. Is it something that we as special needs parents should be thinking about differently - should we be taking up this cause?

It is a complex issue. It could be the way to change the discourse on education for our kids. Davies posits that there is a need to develop alternative assessments for students with additional needs to more accurately measure competencies at a less complex level. There is a need to more accurately diagnose higher and lower achieving students. One possible strategy being to measure progress rather than specific levels. There isn't an easy answer but by golly I think it is a great question.

One of my concerns is how this data could potentially be used. One of my criticisms of the funding model in NSW as I have experienced it is that it is closely linked to an IQ assessment. So $$ is poured into EI. Children have an IQ test to determine the level of support they qualify for in school setting. For us that meant a largely non verbal child who was not fully toilet trained and who has the not uncommon traits of Down Syndrome (such as she gets tired more easily than regular children, she is less confident physically so more likely to fall over or require help walking down stairs and around busy playgrounds etc) and clearly had social interaction deficits that aren't going to be magically dealt with by even the best general social skills program - received less funding because she could achieve at a reasonable level in that *** IQ assessment. I would hate to see governments use progress in naplan results to continue to scrimp on funding for students with special needs in mainstream schools. I'd also hate to see secondary schools deal with the competitive market pressures they face by attempting to restrict enrolment of students based on naplan results.

On the positive side - we are lucky in that I am confident that the school my children attend are doing a brilliant job with her academic learning. I am satisfied with the IEP and the reporting system being used. It is insightful, fair and useful. But there is the risk that this is only the case in our case. An ad hoc approach to curriculum for students with special needs leaves our kids vulnerable to neglect or incompetence - whether intentional or not. There needs to be flexibility for the individual but at the same time to be able to track performance of specific students over time - to assess and develop best practice - would be invaluable. In fact it would be inclusion.

I'll be keeping my eye on this one I think.... my mind is not made up on it at all.

The Davies article is published in Australasian Journal of Special Education vol 36, Issue 1 pp62-78

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