Testing Accommodations: Consistent Implementation Benefits Gifted LD Students

As this is my introductory column, I really should have tried harder to make this more informative and more worthy of the critical mass of credentials I’ve accumulated in the special education field over the last dozen or so years. However, as I discovered some three years ago, it’s one thing to write about what’s happening to another parent’s child, certainly as a parent yourself you sympathize: It’s another thing entirely when it’s your child who’s involved.

Consequently, if you would rather not read the lunatic rantings of a mother and attorney who has been pushed to her limits and beyond, feel free to stop reading now. However, before you make that decision, please know that because I am an attorney these will probably be well-reasoned lunatic rantings of an overstressed mom.

Although I’ve only been doing the Gifted LD thing personally for about three years, I’ve learned from others’ experiences that certain truths seem to predominate. One of those truths concerns the academic years from middle school and onward. That is, no matter how hard you try to work your child’s schedule to accommodate his or her strengths and weaknesses, there will always be one teacher who refuses to sign on to the program, or, worse, who signs on only after being sledge hammered to do so by the administration, or whatever one calls the powers that be that do that sort of convincing. This, of course, assumes that you have an administration that it is in the loop of enforcing your child’s Individual Education Plan (IEP) or Section 504 accommodations, but that is a column for another day.

Other truths also seem to flow from the presence of this one uncooperative teacher in your child’s academic schedule. Some of these are:

1. No matter how awesome all your child’s other teachers are, their very awesome-ness pales beside the mere nightmarish presence of this one teacher in your child’s life.

2. Uncooperative teachers are convinced that any accommodation granted to your child gives them an unfair advantage. Such teachers fail to even to begin to comprehend that your child’s accommodations have been put in place in an attempt to maybe level the playing field for your child in their classroom.

3. While such teachers may accept the presence of a laptop in their classroom, or they may reluctantly provide notes for your child, they almost unanimously balk at providing your child with the full plethora of testing accommodations that your child is due under their IEP or 504 Plan.

What amazes me even more is the rationale commonly expressed by such teachers for their refusal. Although I certainly have not had this rationale explained to me as a parent, I have heard it in one of my other roles as a substitute teacher.

About five years ago, I did a longterm substitute teaching assignment– thirteen weeks of ‘What was I thinking when I agreed to do this?!?’ On a couple occasions, I remember hearing a few of the other teachers comment about certain students taking tests outside their classrooms, proctored by the special education staff. What disturbed me then, and appalls me now, is that those teachers were convinced that those students were being given the answers by the staff members proctoring them or that the students were using the opportunity of being outside the classroom to cheat on the test.

While I certainly won’t argue that yes, there are students and staff who take advantage of the system, the reality is that those folks are the extremely rare minority, like less than 1 percent, if that. What most teachers fail to understand is that from middle school on, most students with learning disabilities, even those who are gifted, spend the large majority of their academic lives trying to stay afloat. This is even truer for those Gifted LD students whose academic talents are recognized and find themselves granted admittance to the Honors level and Gifted and Talented level classes in which they belong.

What many of their teachers, and even on occasion their parents, don’t realize is that a Gifted LD student is poignantly aware of what their abilities and disabilities are. They get that they “should” be able to write an incredibly insightful essay about the human foibles plaguing one of Shakespeare’s many troubled characters – [In a quick aside, having to revisit many of Shakespeare’s plays over the last few years, courtesy of my two oldest, it’s obvious that many of his characters were in serious need of psychological counseling. And if his characters were that messed up, you’ve got to wonder about the guy writing about them.] – However, their disability interferes with the organization of their thoughts into a coherent stream of words, or even the reading of the play itself. This acute awareness of what they should be able to do, but cannot, often feeds an incredible cycle of frustration in these students. As a result, teachers who view Gifted LD students as an inconvenience, or worse, not belonging in their classroom, only compound the student’s frustrations and feed that cycle of self-disgust and lowered self esteem often experienced by Gifted LD students, particularly teenaged ones.

How to help? As a parent, insist that your child receive ALL their testing accommodations from day one of the school year. By placing those accommodations in your child’s IEP or 504 Plan, the school has agreed that they consider them “reasonable,” and consequently, they are liable under the appropriate federal law to enforce their implementation by the school’s staff.
Indeed, most testing accommodations are so mundanely routine that the Educational Testing Service, which administers the SAT, ACT and the like has check off forms to request many of them, such as extended time, use of a separate proctored room, and the use of a computer for the written portions of the testing. Consequently, their implementation by your child’s teachers should not be any less routine.

When teachers balk at giving accommodations, request that members of the special education staff and/or the administration sit down with the teacher and explain not only the nature of the accommodations, but, most importantly, the reason for their existence. As Dr. Mel Levine, a noted educational expert and pediatrician in neurodevelopment, points out towards the end of his book, A Mind at a Time, “Not all children can demonstrate their strengths in the same manner; therefore, different kids may need to be tested or allowed to demonstrate their strengths differently.” (Levine, 330)

When you think about it, this is the essential rationale behind testing accommodations – giving the student an opportunity to demonstrate that they really do get the material being taught. In addition, teachers should keep in mind that even for a student who may be a high performer in one area, they will have other areas where that may not be the case. But, this is human nature. No one person has a monopoly on all the subjects taught in school.

In fact, in the instance of secondary teachers, many of them teach the subjects they teach precisely because of their own strengths and weaknesses. I sure there are many awesome English teachers, who can barely keep their checkbook balanced, as well as many equally awesome math teachers, who wouldn’t know a personification even if the words rose up from the page and smacked them in the face. [Btw, a personification is giving human attributes to an inanimate object(s), such as in the last turn of phrase.]

Lastly, try to help your child see their frustration with any such nightmare teachers as a learning experience. Let’s face it, this will not be the last time your son or daughter will have to deal with a difficult person, sometimes on a daily basis. While we all wish we could shelter our children from the big, bad reality of “The Real World,” doing so only leaves them without the skills they need to survive out there away from our parental protection. Dealing with difficult people in a calm purposeful manner is one of those essential skills in self-advocacy that your child will hopefully thank you for some decades down the road.

It also helps to remind them that this too will pass. Certainly, while there are aspects of life, which are immutable, the presence of their learning disability for instance, others are often there and gone. In the instance of the nightmare teacher, it sometimes helps to remind your child that come this time next year, that teacher will be torturing other hapless students, and you will have moved on to bigger, and hopefully better, things. In short, it’s all a matter of keeping your perspective.