Special needs Autism Spectrum Education

Professionally, I’m in education. In real life’, I’m the parent of a special needs child. I can tell you all the “technical” reasons that we should utilize standardized testing for students, and I can quote you the No Child Left Behind Act until you scream no more, no more’. What I cannot do is make any real sense of the idea of utilizing standardized testing for the special needs population.

My daughter is on the autism spectrum and has developmental delays. She has short term memory loss. Today, she may be able to tell you the history of the evolution of a dog’s dew claws. Tomorrow morning, she may sit on the edge of her bed and cry, because I told her to wear her jeans and she can’t remember what jeans are.

Today, she may read at a sixth grade level. Tomorrow, she may not remember the alphabet. Which test scores do we accept? The ones that say she is at sixth grade level, or the ones that say she cannot read? She has more than one reality. Some days, she is a sixth grader. Some days, she is a two year old. Is it fair to say she is a sixth grader, and thus expect sixth grade achievement out of her? I think not, for some days she is not, in fact, a sixth grader.

Thanks to Hurricane Katrina, we had the opportunity to sample schooling in a number of states. Prior to Katrina, my daughter had been in three different school systems. The first school system was incredible. They accommodated her needs, and worried about teaching her how to compensate for her issues, rather than attempting to define her “grade” with standardized testing. We were transferred, and experienced two systems that not only concentrated on standardized testing, but also would make no accommodation during the testing process.

After Hurricane Katrina, my little one briefly attended a school in a fourth system, one which temporarily waived all standardized testing and concentrated just on keeping children engaged in the education process during such a stressful time. In two systems, my daughter flourished, and loved learning. In the other two, she and I both dreaded when it was time for her to go off to school in the morning. I cannot tell you the number of times I was told that she must be “putting on” a disability because she “seems just fine today.”

Honestly, without required standardized testing, I believe she would have been judged on her daily achievement, just like she was in the other two systems. When she is judged in that manner, it is clear that there are real issues and that she needs patience, assistance, and accommodation. But heaven forbid she got a good standardized mark in the other systems, from that point on, she was held to that level of achievement.

Attempting to hold her to a consistent level of achievement that she could not possibly accomplish effectively killed her joy of learning and made each morning a fight, and each school day a “betting contest” to see what time the school would call, complaining. Would I make it past 10 o’clock without a call? Could we possibly make it till 2? I don’t believe we made it through a single day without a crisis call in those two school systems, yet the two without standardized testing merely accepted her as she was, taught her as they could, and treasured her for who she was. School was school: fun to go to, a safe place to be.

In two schools, she was a number on a test; in two, she was a person. There is no doubt in my mind which is preferable. When we finally landed in our present location, I talked with a great many parents, explored homeschool possibilities, and studied the state law on evaluation. Though the school system pushes standardized testing, state law offers the option of portfolio review. I chose a teacher experienced in teaching children on the autism spectrum, and she was able to review the portfolio and give me excellent advice for this coming year. She put the joy back in learning for my child, rather than scaring her by putting pressure on a score for testing.

Standardized testing simply does not work for many special needs students.