Many school districts throughout the country are having tough conversations about the need for student assessments this spring, given all that has happened over the last year. Reasons for not testing abound, including competing priorities, such as the need to focus on improving hybrid learning models, and putting the whole child and emotional needs ahead of testing. Some administrators also think data gathered this year will be unreliable, given the different testing conditions. In fact, some states have already canceled formal assessments, so there will be no updated data for this school year.
This is very unfortunate, especially in the area of special education. Not testing students this year will significantly impact the foundation of special education instruction, that is, individualized education programs (IEPs).
The value of these documents is seriously compromised if they do not provide accurate, updated data, and without it, students will suffer in several key ways. Here are my top five reasons that updated data is invaluable for our students in special education.
1. Accurate IEPs
IEPs are the cornerstone of special education instruction, but we need updated assessment data to be able to write IEPs that are precise. Only with up-to-date information can we create manageable goals and set challenging yet attainable benchmarks for our students. Without current data, we will not have accurate baselines against which to measure progress.
2. Determining services
Assessment data helps identify students who will benefit from special services and other resources. It is the key mechanism for matching students to the appropriate teachers and services, including speech, physical therapy, occupational therapy, social workers, etc.
Data also allows educators to identify and prove staffing requirements, such as the need for an additional paraprofessional in a certain classroom or a 1:1 student aid. It is also critical to deciding how to allocate funding and which school programs are most beneficial to students. Updated assessment data is also needed for accurate Medicaid reimbursements.
3. Quantifying student growth
All educators, including special education professionals, need to gauge student development. Progress monitoring and reporting of IEP goals are not only mandatory but also necessary for improving student outcomes. IEP goal achievement can indicate if a student needs more or less support, and it can result in placement changes, such as moving from a self-contained classroom to resource room services.
4. Meaningful instruction
Our most important goal is always meaningful instruction, and data is essential for showing us the areas to focus on. With updated assessment data, we can prioritize standards, determine how a certain curriculum is working (or not working!), and identify school or district-wide professional development needs for educators.
Assessment data allows us to develop an instruction plan that aligns with where students actually are while still holding them to high academic standards. If we test this spring, we are not holding students to inappropriate benchmarks. Instead, we are gathering data we can use to help children. We are always adapting what we teach to fit student needs. This year, the needs are greater than ever, and the more data we have, the better we can adapt.
5. Educational equity
The pandemic has highlighted the continuing lack of resources and learning opportunities for those students needing specialized instruction. Assessment data allows us to update IEPs, measure student progress, help students access needed services, and create data-driven instruction, helping to decrease the opportunity gap that existed long before the pandemic. Low-income students, students of color, and students in special education need more resources, more funds, and data-aligned interventions so the gap does not continue to widen.
Not testing students and updating IEPs could change entire academic trajectories for students if they do not receive data-driven supports and services. Yes, it sometimes feels like all we do is assess students. And yes, it is difficult to manage everything educators are expected to do on a day-to-day basis even without assessments. However, I encourage you to lean in to updating data as it will enable us to provide a better education for our students who receive special education support.
Rachael Storey is a teacher-turned-writer with a passion for special education. She received her undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan and her graduate degree in urban special education from Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee. Rachael currently holds a professional teaching license in Michigan K-12 special education with endorsements in both learning disabilities and cognitive disabilities and has enjoyed teaching all levels of students over the past ten years.
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