Published online on September 16, 2008
Published in print on September 17, 2008

Education Week

Letter

A Dearth of Standardization in College-Entrance Exams

To the Editor:

As reported in your recent articles “SAT Scores for Class of 2008 Halt Slide of Recent Years” (Sept. 3, 2008) and “ACT Scores Dip Slightly as Participation Soars” (Aug. 27, 2008), scores on the SAT and ACT college-entrance exams remain flat or trend slightly downward, while score gaps between groups of students remain wide. Are these numbers reliable? Unfortunately, no.

We assume that scores reflect a standardized norm, but this is not the case. While attention turns to the ACT’s one-tenth of a point decline (on a 36-point scale), where is the mention of the approximately 2 percent of SAT test-takers who take the exam under nonstandard conditions? The latter is a far more significant number.

In 2002, when the College Board, the owner of the SAT, faced a threatened lawsuit by disability-rights advocates who argued against flagging scores of exams administered with extended time, it blinked. Rather than defend its appropriate and legal reporting, the College Board settled. ACT Inc., the owner of the ACT, followed suit. Since 2003, test scores are no longer marked, and no one knows what scores mean because some (how many?) are not normed, not standardized. In short, there are apples and oranges aplenty. On the SAT, time can be extended by 50 percent or even 100 percent, thus modifying the test.

As an attorney who represents schools and writes and speaks nationally about testing and standards issues, I see the widespread confusion and cynicism this flawed policy causes. Who, if anyone, benefits from results whose very validity is questionable?

Rather than continue down this path, the College Board should consider three better options: (a) Flag scores again; (b) give all students the choice to take tests with nonstandard accommodations that would be flagged; or, (c) if time really does not matter, simply remove the time restriction from everyones tests. These steps could return trust, fairness, and validity.

Public reporting is overdue, even as we ponder flat scores, wide gaps, and slight dips.

Miriam Kurtzig Freedman
Attorney
Stoneman, Chandler & Miller LLP
Boston, Mass.

Back in 1995, I wrote the attached piece which appeared in Education Week. Briefly, it speaks about the fact that we spend too much time, money, and effort on evaluating children and putting them into various categories–and that we should spend more time, money, and effort on teaching ALL students.

The article received LOTS of responses at the time. As a school attorney, I visited many schools back then. Often I saw the piece on school bulletin boards. Fun! I’d love to know what you think of the message. I believe it still rings true. Enjoy the read!

Education Week: The Elevator Theory Of Special Education

Have you been following news of the SAT and ACT scores?

Education Week, August 27 and September 3, 2008 reported that SAT scores are flat. Gaps among groups remain wide. ACT scores “dip slightly.” Are these numbers the meaningful gold standard we need? Unfortunately not. We assume reported scores reflect a standardized norm. But, alas, they no longer do. While Ed Week headlines SAT scores and the ACT’s one tenth of a point (on a 36 point scale) decline as a “slight dip,” where is mention of the approximately 2% of ALL students who take the SAT with extended time? A far higher number!CAVEAT: Unfortunately, I was unable to find current percentages for either test.

Since 2003, when the College Board (BC) faced a threatened lawsuit by disability advocates who argued against “flagging” scores that were administered with extended time, it blinked. Rather than defending its appropriate and legal reporting, the CB, owner of the SAT, settled. ACT Inc., owner of the ACT, followed suit. Test scores are no longer “flagged.” No one knows what scores mean because some (how many?) are not normed, not standardized. Apples and oranges aplenty. On the SAT, time can be extended by 50% or 100%, modifying the very test!

As an attorney who represents schools and writes and speaks nationally about testing and standards issues, I see the widespread confusion and cynicism this flawed policy causes. Who, if anyone, benefits from results whose very validity is questionable?

Rather than continuing down this path, consider three better options: (a) “Flag” scores again. (b) Give all students the choice to take tests with non standard accommodations that will be flagged. Or, (c) if time really does not matter, simply untime everyone’s tests. These steps can return trust, fairness, and validity.

Public reporting is overdue, even as we ponder flat scores, wide gaps, and slight dips.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Dear friends of public education,

It’s been far too long since my last post–I was away from my desk.

Nonw, I’m back and happy to report that my little law book, GRADES, REPORT CARDS, ETC…AND THE LAW continues to meet needs all over the country! People seem to love it.

In fact, I’ve been invited to speak around the country on this issue which is really about the nuts and bolts of inclusion in classrooms. How do educators provide grades for all students, including students with disabilities, honestly, validly, and fairly–so that they and their parents get the relevant information they need. And ultimately, so education results improve.

If you have specific questions, concerns, or comments on these issues, please send them along. I’ll do my best to respond.

Also, I wanted to let you know that my third little law book (the first one is now an LRP Publication, STUDENT TESTING AND THE LAW) will be published soon. It is called, IEP AND 504 MEETINGS… AND THE LAW. This little book, too, should be a great addition to your library–useful, and hopefully, fun, too. A law book that’s fun? Yes, indeed we aim for that!

Moving from Confusion to Confidence to Return to the Mission of Educating All!

Miriam

Hello again,

I get so many questions about this topic… so let’s see if this explanation helps.

Educators and parents often get confused about the difference between these. Remember: an accommodation does NOT fundamentally alter what is being taught or tested, and a modification DOES. A fundamental alteration changes the essence of what is being taught or tested. For example, providing a student with a reader (someone or a technology to read the text to him) on a reading lesson or test fundamentally alters the lesson or test. If a student uses a reader, he is not reading–he is being read to. That is a different skill set. Therefore, it is a modification.

Making these decisions arise in schools–and in many other settings. Do you remember Casey Martin, the golfer whose lawsuit went all the way to the Supreme Court in 2001? That’s what the case was about. The whole country got a lesson in accommodations and modifications then!

Due to his leg impairment, Martin could participate in the PGA Professional Tour only if he was allowed to use his golf cart. His impairment substantially limited his ability to walk long distances (5 miles on that golf course, as I recall.).

Well, the Supreme Court analyzed the situation and came down on his side. It decided that the cart would NOT fundamentally alter the PGA Tour. And here’s the key: To do so, it had to analyze whether WALKING was fundamental to the game. If it was, Martin could not use the cart. If it was not fundamental, then he could use it. Based on the evidence it had, the Court decided that walking was NOT fundamental.

Importantly, the Court reminded us that accommodations should NOT provide an unfair advantage to the person. If the cart had done so, it would not be allowed. Based on the evidence before it, the Court found that the cart did NOT provide an unfair advantage. So, it was allowed.

Bottom line: decide what is fundamental. And go from there!

I hope this post is useful. Would love to hear! Miriam

The issue of report cards and transcripts comes up often. I get many email queries about it…

So, I’d like to share my several step process in developing report cards.

As I see it, the most important step is the first one. The school needs to be very clear about what the grades will mean. This can be either school wide or teacher-by-teacher. In either case, students and parents have a right to know what matters when it comes to grades.

Will they focus on knowledge? skills? effort? attendance? participation? Some of the above? All of the above? In what order of importance? Be very clear about what grades mean. Of course, different teachers can have different standards.

I hope this chart is useful:

HOW TO MAKE A GRADING POLICY:

1. Establish standards that are based on objective criteria or other educational justification.

2. Create clear uncomplicated standards that are fair and easy to understand.

3. Notify everyone! This includes students and parents.

4. Implement consistently. Build in the possibility for flexibility–that is, for making exceptions in rare situations. Have a procedure in place for these.

5. Remember–This is NOT rocket science!

6. Remember–Courts defer to educators who do the above.

7. Keep smiling. Education is where it’s at!

If this chart is useful, let me know!

Miriam

  • Nathan Levenson, Managing Director, District and Community Partners. www.dmcouncil.org.
    Fixing Special Education is far reaching, yet practical. The analysis convincingly challenges conventional practice and lays out a road for reform. It is the intersection of out of the box thinking and a life time of in the trenches experience.
  • Fordham Institution’s  Education Gadfly review in the “recommended reading section
    This little flipbook takes a critical look at special education in America and offers twelve suggestions to improve it. The author argues forcefully that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is no longer adequate (though it has played an important role heretofore) and that special ed itself needs an overhaul. She contends that IDEA has become too inclusive, now covering many children for whom it wasn’t meant and who don’t necessarily need special education. (Just 30 percent of kids currently covered by IDEA are estimated to have severe disabilities.) Moreover, today’s special ed regime serves to hold capable kids to lower standards, costs a lot of money, and encourages schools to give extra attention only to kids with diagnosed disabilities, which can mean less attention for others. Besides all that, the bureaucracy that has sprung up around IDEA has become overwhelming, as has the litigation, which further serves to pit parents against schools. Powerful stuff, and available for purchase here.
  • California grandmother:
    “If anyone asks you about this book, I can recommend it. My children used it as a powerful tool in helping them get their first California grandmother, “If any parents want to know about this book and whether it is helpful, I can personally IEP for their child.”
  • Kentucky mom:
    “Miriam, many thanks for the IEP Team Meetings book. The layout, the simplicity, and the explanations were all great! Your book helped us achieve a better IEP for our daughter.”
  • Massachusetts special education director:
    “I attended your seminar yesterday and got this book. I have to tell you, I am LOVING your little orange book. I read it last night. I cannot fully express what a find it is for me. I want to buy it for my entire staff and all the administrators. It is informative, it cuts to the chase, and it’s entertaining!!! Who would ever think a book about special education law could be funny! Really, I was talking about it all day today at another conference I went to! I really do want to order more than 35 of your little orange books. I ‘d like to keep some on my shelf for parents too!”
  • Virginia Department of Education:
    “I found your book (Grades, Report Cards, etc…and the Law) lying on a co-worker’s desk and thought I’d glance at it. Well, I couldn’t put it down! It’s a wonderful, straightforward guide. How do I get a copy?”
    -May 2005, Virginia Department of Education.
  • Tennessee school district.
    “I am ordering more books. The book is wonderful.”
    – Tennessee school district