I read this article on The Onion recently, and while it’s a great example of satire, I can tell you it’s actually not that far from the truth, and it’s what prompted me to write this post.
I’ve been nervous about writing this post for the past few months. I don’t know if there’s any way I can’t come off as insensitive. The truth is, I’m extremely sensitive to the issue of inclusive education; it’s just that I don’t think things are being managed properly here in Alberta.
For many students who are deemed to have special needs, the reality is that they’re simply average, a diagnosis that many parents today refuse to accept, and even find offensive, given that the last couple of generations have all been awarded ribbons in various competitions because everyone’s a winner. In the context of secondary education, this seems to mean that a 65% average just doesn’t cut it. I’m reminded of a recent Huffington Post article that might seem harsh, but that I find rather honest.
Of the almost 100 students I teach this semester, approximately 15 of them will receive some kind of accommodation when they write their diploma exams this January. These accommodations range from simply being allowed extra time, to actually having their English Language Arts comprehension test read to them. Yes. This is a legitimate accommodation for some students in Alberta.
I’m not sure how I feel about all of this. In the classroom, I find the management of students with special needs rather taxing. It often feels like a lot of busy work to prove that the school is doing something extra for the student, when, in fact, nothing of consequence is really being done. And when it is, it often feels like the teacher is the one making the extra effort, not the student in question. Then, there are parents who insist that their child is capable, and that he or she simply needs the right support to succeed. I am currently teaching a child for whom my school has invested tens of thousands of dollars, with little evidence of success. The forceful parent-advocates of this high-needs child have railroaded seemingly unlimited resources for the benefit of their one child. How is that possible? Because they care deeply about their child, they’re well-educated, they’re affluent, and they demand that something be done. In and of itself, this isn’t a bad thing – they want the best for their child – but their mission has siphoned resources and funds from other students, and from the school, in general.
And so it goes, it seems. In my experience at a high school populated by students of affluent families, when students are not achieving at an acceptable level, their parents often demand testing to identify learning or cognitive disabilities in their children. More often than not, schools pay for this testing. In another school at which I taught, one of a lower socio-economic demographic, parents were largely unaware that they could even request such testing. But in my current school, if a student is not achieving at the level his or her parents find acceptable, said parents will, without hesitation, demand that their child be tested, so that the child can be coded, so that accommodations can be made for his or her learning. I’ve even known the school to suggest that testing is not required, given that academic achievement is more of a behavioural issue, such as an apathetic attitude towards learning, a tendency to not complete assignments, or even an inconsistent attendance record. In those cases, parents pay the roughly $900 to get their child tested independently, and achieve the same goal, since almost every child who gets tested, is ascribed a “code,” even if it’s Code 54 – undiagnosed learning disability. For these students, pretty much any accommodation that parents request is granted, including the aforementioned “reader” for a reading comprehension test or “scribe” for an essay exam.
While I’m in favour of leveling the playing field for students who struggle academically, I’m seeing a bigger problem here. The Alberta Diploma Exams are rather rigorous achievement tests that are designed to assess students across the province on the programs of study in core subjects. While these exams have recently been minimized in value to 30% from their original 50% weighting, they’re still significant, and they play a major role in university and other post-secondary admissions. When students are provided with accommodations for these exams, this is not recorded on their transcripts. So if Student A writes her Physics 30 exam in the allotted three-hour time limit and Student B is allowed extra time and completes the same exam in six hours, no distinction is made anywhere on the reported results. Or if Student A completes the English 30-1 Part B (a reading comprehension test) in the allotted two-and-a-half hours on her own, with pencil and paper, while Student B is provided a reader, who reads the reading selections and questions to the student over the course of four hours, nowhere is this indicated on the transcript.
If Student A and B have different needs, this might seem like a reasonable scenario. I have a problem with it, particularly if a student can have a READING COMPREHENSION TEST READ TO HIM. I don’t see the sense in that. But beyond my aversion to this, in general, I see a more insidious issue at hand. In my experience at my current school, I’ve noticed that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. And affluent parents can be pretty squeaky. What if involved parents, themselves educated and influential, were dictating edicts that would allow their sons and daughters extra time on exams, readers for exams, private spaces for exams, and a number of other accommodations? In my view, that’s already happening. Increasingly, students who appear to have no cognitive disabilities, and whose psychological evaluations indicate as much (code 54), are being given accommodations for exams. The process for applying for these accommodations has become easier over the years, and accommodations are often provided due to nothing more than the demands of a well-intentioned and determined parent.
I’m concerned that while this process of identifying and supporting students with special needs is undoubtedly motivated by benevolence, it’s being co-opted by those with the knowledge and power to make the system work in their favour, and by teachers and administration who are too willing to succumb to pressure. The whole system of “inclusive education” in Alberta is riddled with problems; as a diploma-level teacher of a core subject, this is just one of the pressing issues that I think needs to be addressed.