Some Children Left Behind
The hope that every student will someday perform at the same level is nothing short of utopic.
It was a Monday in February of 2009. I was seventeen. It had been less than twenty-four hours since I had been discharged from an adolescent psychiatric hospital for depressive psychosis. I was marched into the backroom of the high school library at Blue Mountain High School in Schuylkill Haven, PA, and made to take the high stakes examination of Pennsylvania at the time, the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA).
I was on incredibly high doses of antipsychotics and antidepressants. Despite the drugs, I was still actively experiencing the symptoms of psychotic depression, which, at the time, included delusions, hearing voices, and prolonged bouts of sobbing.
Why had I been sent back to school in such a state? I am not sure. What I do know is that my experience was not unique. Many students with disabilities across the country were forced to take high-stakes examinations because of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act, which focused on equitable outcomes in schools. California even mandated exit exams for all students with disabilities and provided no alternative pathways for graduation until 2010.
The No Child Left Behind Act was the cornerstone of President George W. Bush’s education policy. The goal of the act was to provide more educational opportunities for students, such as those with disabilities. NCLB provided for a regime of annual testing that set learning targets for all students regardless of their abilities and would penalize funding for entire schools if these targets were not met. Students who failed their tests in many states would receive worthless diplomas, a practice that continues to this day.
NCLB was intended as a vehicle to require schools to target more resources toward disadvantaged students. Instead it would became a vehicle for equity and lay the groundwork for a federal takeover of education. Disabled students like me were particularly harmed by this law because instead of schools being able to offer coursework that was suited to the needs and abilities of disabled students, there was now a “one size fits all” mandate of what had to be taught by schools: It was all about the tests.
The threats against students’ graduation prospects and against schools' federal funds continued under the Obama administration during its so-called Race to the Top. This grant program and the controversy surrounding Common Core from 2010 onwards ultimately renewed a movement, led by Rand Paul and others, to end the federal role in education.
No reforms were made while I was in school. I remember being told in 2005, in eighth grade, that passing the PSSA was important for us individually and for our schools. We were told by school administrators that if we failed, we would face remediation classes, the loss of electives, and having to retake the exams. If we failed again, we would not get diplomas, and would be sent on our way with “certificates of completion.”
After I was discharged from the hospital, my teachers did their best to prepare me. Unfortunately, when I re-took the PSSA, I failed. My medications were being changed so frequently that I was still symptomatic.
Then, after a second hospitalization, my parents considered asking to keep me in school until I was twenty-one. We soon got the news from school officials: I was going to graduate, but with a modified diploma for completing my individualized education plan (IEP) and passing all my classes. It would lack a seal saying I passed the PSSAs but, in the eyes of the state, it was a high school diploma.
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I am not arguing that students with disabilities or other low-performing students should get a free pass. What I am saying, though, is our obsessive focus on federal education standards and standardized testing puts a tremendous amount of stress on disabled students, parents, teachers, and school officials. It’s time to put a stop to it.
What happened to disabled students like me should never have been pushed by the federal government. Passing classes and completing an IEP or whatever graduation requirements set by a state or local school should be enough to qualify a student for graduation. If high-performing students want to take high-stakes exams, optional tests such as the AP exams, ACT, CLT, and IB tests exist for that reason.
The liberal goal of having everyone perform at the same level is simply not possible to achieve. God has given us all different abilities, and while disabled students should have equal opportunity to receive an education and learn, expecting everyone to perform at the same level is unrealistic. The sooner we accept that, the sooner we can have a conversation about what a worthwhile education for disabled students would look like.