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Common Core @ Home: ELA - How does Common Core affect children with special needs?

Part Eight of a continuing series

Dear Kiersten, How does the Common Core affect English Language Arts instruction and assessment for students with special needs?

To answer this question, I interviewed a friend and colleague, Bianca Tanis, who is both a special education teacher and a parent of a child with special needs.

Bianca: I believe that the increased text complexity is developmentally inappropriate. The idea that we’ve been historically dumbing down the texts that we expose our children to — special needs or not — is a fallacy. To arbitrarily increase the difficulty of text doesn’t make sense and leaves children who were already behind suddenly significantly more so. The CC also discourages the use of background knowledge and personal experience to comprehend a text. This negates decades of reading research.

READ MORE: What are the instructional levels for schools in reading now?

How does the CC affect students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs)?

Bianca: Students with IEPs are entitled to an individualized education that meets their unique needs. However, high-stakes testing coupled with the CC forces teachers to teach some students material they are not ready for. This is because they will be tested on grade level content at the end of the year, no matter their ability or cognitive level. This can be very frustrating and demoralizing for a child.


So you’re saying that no matter what’s on a student’s IEP, they have to take the state exam for their grade level?

Bianca: Yes. A very small percentage — roughly 1 percent — of students with IEPs are eligible for taking an alternative assessment. There are very rigid and specific criteria that students must meet, and the exam is geared toward the students with the most severe disabilities, not the majority of students with IEPs.

READ MORE: Opting out of common core

Is there anything good that the CC does for students with disabilities?

Bianca: Yes. The CC has brought back direct phonics instruction in grades K-2. Many students who are struggling readers respond well to this method of reading instruction. I also think the idea of having to support your opinions with evidence, which is one of the hallmarks of “close reading,” is an important skill.

However it’s been taken to a level that’s developmentally inappropriate.

Because of the CC, we have kids reading incredibly imaginative, creative texts like Peter Pan, looking for text-based evidence to answer questions and annotating their texts. Peter Pan was meant to be enjoyed — it wasn’t designed for close reading. In order to teach students to demonstrate proficiency on a developmentally inappropriate skill on a test, educators must resort to teaching tricks and formulas, which is essentially test prep.

What advice would you give to parents of students with disabilities who want to know more about this topic?

Bianca: I would encourage parents to go beyond the sound bytes they hear about the CC and do some research on their own. They could go right to the CC website and look into what research has been done on the application of the CC for students with disabilities. They’ll see that it’s not much. Everyone wants their child to be held to high standards and to be prepared for college, but there is no evidence that the CC will do this.

Kiersten Greene, PhD, is an assistant professor of literacy education at SUNY New Paltz. She was born in the Hudson Valley, and recently returned to the region after living in New York City for 15 years, where she taught 5th grade. When she’s not reading, writing, or teaching, you can find her knitting.