Skills tests discriminate against disabled students

I have been a special education teacher for more than 20 years. I have dealt with every type of handicapping condition and have taught all subjects.

Education is always changing, and that is good as long as it addresses the students' best interests. However, in the past few years the state has added "rigorous" graduation requirements. Now, students need to pass the Essential Skills tests in reading (class of 2012), reading and writing (Class of 2013), and finally reading, writing and math for the class of 2014. In addition, Oregon has now implemented House Bill 2362, which mandates all students to be graded on proficiency-based assessments starting in the fall of 2013.

Kids with an identified handicapping condition that documents that a student is not meeting standards because of a handicapping condition are being penalized because they will never meet proficiency in all areas. If they could, they wouldn't be on an individual education plan. Approximately 10 percent of the population has some kind of handicapping disability and is affected by this.

The alternative? Now they must settle for a modified diploma. Why is this a critical change? Because with a modified diploma, these graduates are not allowed any financial aid for higher education, which includes vocational training at a community college or specialty school, such as culinary arts.

This is not what education is about. According to the Oregon Legislature, one of the state's educational goals is "To prepare students for successful transitions to the next phase of their educational development." However, according to the new laws, they must also pass high-stakes exams to qualify for that goal. Not fair, not equitable.

There are many individuals out there who have had very fulfilling lives without proving their academic worth. Students are being graded on academic ability only. Now, the work ethic, great attendance and other outlying factors that helped academically challenged students don't count, even though these are characteristics that employers seek.

I am not saying the proficiency grading doesn't have some good aspects; I am saying that it is discriminatory to those who have documented disabilities that will not be overcome just because of a new law.

Proficiency grading is great for highly skilled students who can pass tests without "doing the work." But if you listen to many teachers, it is backfiring in many more areas.

I challenge legislators to read the book, "My 13th Winter," a memoir by Samantha Abeel about a gifted writer with dyscalculia and how she struggled with not having it define her worth as an individual. Or watch the HBO documentary, "Journey Into Dyslexia," which interviewing numerous artists and entrepreneurs who struggled with academics in school, but their creativity was not stifled by it. Then tell me that students need to be judged by these "standards."

I also challenge the legislators to try taking these tests themselves. Imagine the pressure of students whose graduation requirements are based on test scores regardless of personal efforts put forth in their classes for four years.

Many "regular education" students can't pass these Essential Skills tests. Think of how difficult it would be to do so with a reading or math disability.

They can't pass the tests, so they can't get financial aid for any kind of higher education and personal growth. That's just not right and something needs to be changed now!

Cindy Selbe is a special education teacher who lives in Jacksonville.

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