By Andrew Hawk
Assessing student learning is an integral part of the learning process. Teachers use assessment data to adjust their teaching practices. In addition, they must always be asking themselves, “Is it time to move on?” Teachers must decide if students have mastered a concept to the point of retention or if students need more time. More time may mean less exposure to other parts of the curriculum. These decisions are rarely black and white.
This process becomes even more difficult when teachers need to grade students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). In many cases, by the time a student has been qualified for special education services, he or she has reached the point of academic failure. These students may be one or more grade levels behind their same-age peers. This poses a new question: How should teachers grade students with IEPs? Some teachers are opposed to giving students with IEPs high grades if the work these students complete is below grade level. I have had teachers ask me if there is a way to indicate on report cards that grades were earned by completing modified work. Some teachers think it is unfair to give a general education student and a special education student the same grade if one completed work that is more difficult.
It is time for teachers to move away from this line of thought. Here are some things I hope you will consider when it is time to grade students with IEPs.
Remember . . .
- The goal of special education. The goal of special education is that students receive the least amount of special services possible. This is extended to hoping that students can someday be released from the special education system. To reach this goal, educators must teach students at students’ learning levels. This can be accomplished by differentiating work, modifying assignments, and offering accommodations to help students reach their full academic potential.
- The student’s IEP. An IEP is a binding legal document. No one individual, be it a teacher or a parent, can change an IEP without the consent of the rest of the IEP committee. If you inherit an IEP that calls on you to shorten assignments or reduce answer choices, you are required to do so.
- The role of standardized testing. I have heard teachers make the case that giving students grades based on modified work is misleading. Typically, if a student is getting A’s, B’s, or even C’s, it is expected that he or she will pass the state standardized tests. I remind teachers that parents of students with IEPs are usually aware of their students’ challenges. I recommend that teachers use standardized test scores to show parents how much academic growth a student has had from one year to the next. If students have not had any growth, it may be time to consider a new learning plan.
- The student’s individual learning level. Students should be graded on work that is on their individual learning levels. Yes, that may mean the work is easier. Yes, that may mean more work for you. Differentiation is one of the most difficult parts of teaching. If you struggle with this part of teaching, reach out to colleagues for help.
Consider . . .
- The effects of academic failure. It can be hard for a typically functioning person to imagine how it feels to have a learning disability or to be unable to maintain focus. In talking with many students with these challenges, I have heard descriptions of feelings that range from helplessness to frustration to anger. Many students will misbehave rather than look like they are struggling academically. Students that never experience any academic success are likely to give up and stop trying. Giving students work that is on their ability levels and then assigning grades based on how well they complete this work reinforces to students that their efforts are valuable. Once a student has given up, he or she is at a higher risk for not completing public education.
Do . . .
- Follow the IEP. Follow the student’s learning plan. If you are struggling with a part of the plan, reach out to the special education teacher for assistance.
- Be willing to make changes. If an IEP is not meeting the needs of a special education student, be willing to call for change from the student’s IEP committee. In order to make sure students are given work that is differentiated to their ability levels, their ability levels need to be assessed regularly and compared to their work.
- Collaborate with peers. If you have a special education student who is struggling, reach out to the student’s past teachers and to his or her current special education teacher. These educators may have some ideas on how to help your student get back on track.
- Give the student the grade he or she earns. Having an IEP does not guarantee that a student will get a high grade, but it is meant to level the playing field. After a student receives an IEP, his or her grades usually improve. However, if students are not working to the best of their abilities within the differentiated work, accommodations, and modifications, they may still earn a D or an F. When this occurs, be prepared to meet with parents to explain the grade and reinforce that the grade was not caused by a problem with the student’s IEP.
Do not . . .
- Put blame on the student’s reading level. I once received a phone call from a parent who was upset that his son was failing science (science is a general education class at my school). When I talked with the classroom teacher about this, the teacher asked, “What does the parent expect? His son does not read at a fifth-grade level.” This idea is not appropriate. Reading level should not produce a failing grade for a student with an IEP. Any material that is not related to reading comprehension can be read aloud to a student as long as this is stated in the student’s IEP. (It almost always is if the student has a reading challenge.) For this reason, no teacher should ever use a special education student’s reading level as a justification for low grades on classwork.
- Point fingers. It is unprofessional for teachers to blame other teachers when parents have questions about a student’s lack of success. Even if the blame is well placed, schools should present themselves as united. Tell parents that everyone is going to work together to meet the needs of the students and solve any potential problems.
Many people still buy in to the idea that fair means everyone is treated the same. In this day and age, we need to shift our thinking away from this notion to the idea that fair means everyone is given what he or she needs. While it is true that assessments are used to mark a student’s progress toward meeting grade-level standards, special education students still deserve the opportunity to be successful within their ability levels.
Andrew Hawk has worked in public education for sixteen years, starting as a teaching assistant in a special education classroom. He has taught first, second, and fifth grades as a classroom teacher, and for the past five years, has worked as a resource room teacher, providing services for fourth and fifth graders. Working as a special education teacher has given him the opportunity to work with a variety of age groups and exceptionalities. Andrew earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education at Indiana University East in Richmond, Indiana. In 2011, he earned his master’s degree in special education from Western Governor’s University, and in 2016, he completed a second master’s degree in educational leadership, also from WGU. When Andrew is not preparing for school, he enjoys spending time with his wife and daughter.
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