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Adapting the Core

Getting the Common Core standards to work for special education and ELL students is the next great hurdle.  

In the furious national debate over the Common Core ­standards, there has been little talk of how to accommodate ELL and special education students. Yet if you ask ­educators who work with these kids, you’ll hear an equal mix of optimism and concern. Depending on how the standards are applied, they say, implementation could bring unprecedented improvement or unparalleled failure.

The two major consortia charged with creating assessments ­related to the standards—Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC)—released broad guidelines in June, leading to discussion and dissent. But where the consortia have been less specific is in how the guidelines apply to students with special needs—both English language learners (ELLs) and special education students.

“As complicated as it all is, it’s more complicated when it comes to these areas,” says Kathleen Porter-Magee, a policy fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and editor of the Common Core Watch blog. “There are still so many questions about how the Common Core is going to look in general education.”

The ELL and special education pieces of CCSS are particularly challenging to figure out because of the competing needs to balance the rigor that the standards require with reasonable accessibility accommodations.

It’s impossible to predict how the standards will play out for these groups—at this juncture the only correct answer is “it depends.” But based on input from experts, we can give a sense of the context, the challenges ahead, and the current pace of progress.


English Language Learners
ELL Snapshot
English Language Learners are the fastest-growing population of students enrolled in U.S. public schools. There are nearly 6 million ELLs (about 10 percent of all students) currently enrolled, and that number will continue to grow for the foreseeable future.

Roughly 70 percent of ELLs are Spanish speakers; Hmong, Chinese, and Vietnamese are the most common native languages for ELLs after Spanish. At last official count, ELLs spoke a combined total of more than 400 different languages.

ELLs encompass a range of backgrounds regardless of grade level—some are newcomers, some have limited formal education, and others are identified as needing both ELL and special education supports. All need different types and levels of instruc­tional support.

Areas of CCSS Impact
For ELLs, the biggest shift is how the standards and assessments expect students to engage with content material through higher-order language skills. In all subject matter areas, the Common Core places a strong emphasis on ­academic language and constructing effective arguments to support conclusions. Previously, state English language proficiency (ELP) standards focused more on students’ social rather than academic acquisition of language. The vocabulary and terminology they will be expected to command is now much more sophisticated.

“These are areas that are challenging for native English speakers, not just ELLs,” says Beatriz Arias, associate vice president of the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL). “ELLs will have to do double the work, not only to learn the language but to master the content as well.”

Even in math, students will be ­expected to go beyond merely providing a correct answer—they will have to articulate why their calculations are correct and evaluate their chosen approach to problem solving.

Challenges Ahead
Determining appropriate ELP standards is tricky because the field itself is so young. Prior to No Child Left Behind in 2001, states were not required to have English language proficiency standards, and few did.

“We don’t know enough yet about what’s possible and what works best in instruction,” says Diane Staehr Fenner, an ELL expert and author who runs her own ELL education consulting firm. “So it’s currently unclear how feasible and attainable it is to hold students to these standards.”

Another complicating factor is the wide range of ELP standards and laws regarding accommodations in various states. For instance, three states participating in the Common Core—Arizona, California, and Massachusetts—have state laws banning bilingual education. Compared with special education, where the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) has provided guidelines and standards that apply to all states, each CCSS state has to take a patchwork approach to integrating ELL education with the standards and their own state laws. Furthermore, even though Smarter Balanced has decided to allow translations in its assessments, PARCC has punted on this issue, releasing a public statement saying it plans to make a final determination sometime this fall.

“There’s an increased level of interaction in language that the Common Core demands, and it’s not that we don’t want that to happen,” says H. Gary Cook, research director for the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment (WIDA) consortium. “It’s just unclear that the programs to support ELLs’ acquisition of language are adequately prepared for this.”

State of Progress
Despite the relative infancy of the field, ELL experts say they are invig­orated by the pace of progress thus far, even though a lot of work lies ahead.

The Department of Education ­awarded federal grants to two multistate consortia—WIDA and English Language Proficiency Assessment for the 21st Century (ELPA21)—to create assessments for English language proficiency that align with CCSS. WIDA has already released related English Language Development (ELD) standards, and ELPA21 is creating ones as well.

“I’m encouraged that many of the people who are concerned and knowledgeable about ELL students are talking to each other,” says Cook. “If you look at the thought leadership of the various consortia groups, you find a lot of overlap in the groups of experts collaborating on this.”

These groups and others are working to create tangible, useful resources: WIDA recently received a National Science Foundation grant to put together a teacher’s guide to ELL proficiency that will include a framework to support content that teachers can use in their CCSS implementation. The guide is expected to take two years to complete, however, and the funding took effect September 1, says Cook.

Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) released a report in May on the changing role of the ESL teacher under the Common Core. The report included a vision for effective implementation and outlined supports that should be offered to ESL teachers with respect to CCSS.

And CAL, with guidance from Arias, is developing teacher networks that pair ESL and regular teachers to share their experiences working with materials and lessons tied to the Common Core. From these pairings, CAL will create an Internet repository of information on solutions and best practices.

“The Common Core can be a very good thing for ELLs, especially with academic language,” says Staehr Fenner. “There’s great potential to let the students take ownership of their learning. But before that can happen, teachers have to figure out how to best scaffold instruction for ELLs.”


Special Education
Special Education Snapshot
The number of students being served in programs specifically for those with disabilities decreased slightly between 2004–05 and 2009–10, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The numbers fell from 6.7 million to 6.5 million, representing a proportional drop from 13.8 percent to 13.1 percent of the total student population ages 3–21.

Similar to the ELL designation, the special ed one encompasses a wide range of disabilities and accessibility accommodations. Under IDEA, there are 13 disability classifications spanning physical impairments, learning disabilities, and other emotional and cognitive impairments. Many students have more than one of those classifications.

Nevertheless, only one percent have cognitive impairments severe enough to make them legally exempt from meeting CCSS standards.

Areas of CCSS Impact
In many ways, the shift to the Common Core standards brings special education further along the trajectory it has been following. Starting in 1987, IDEA mandated a greater focus on holding students with disabilities to the same standards of achievement as mainstreamed students, with the objective of ensuring that they were sufficiently prepared for postsecondary education.

Since then, much of the research on the subject matter suggests that students with a special education designation can achieve at much higher levels than had previously been assumed. So while Common Core doesn’t signal a huge ideological change, it has sharpened the focus in special education on two areas: the use of technology in instruction and assessment and standards-based individualized education programs (IEPs).

One of the major advancements that Common Core assessments, and related curricula, are claiming is that technology will allow for a more customized approach to serving special education students based on their individual accessibility needs.

In fact, presentations and information provided thus far on computer-based assessments feature questions with “tags” that allow the student to interact with the material according to his or her needed accommodation. Consider this accommodation for visually impaired students: While traditional paper-and-pencil tests typically had text enlarged to only one size for them, a computerized test can retrofit the text size based on each student’s particular need.

IEPs, which outline learning goals and needed accommodations for students who receive special education supports, used to be very subjective documents. But with CCSS, IEPs are expected to become a lot more focused on how to ensure special ed students can access rigorous content and meet the same proficiency standards as all other students.

“Years ago, goals and objectives of the IEPs could be decided based on what the teacher thought was best,” says Katie Nicholson, a vice president at Curriculum Associates. “Now the annual goals and objectives will be framed so that they’re tied to the mastery of specific standards.”

Challenges Ahead
As with ELL education, how the Common Core standards will be interpreted and implemented by various states as they pertain to special education remains to be seen. It’s also a bit premature to determine how CCSS will trickle down into instruction and assessment of special education students.

The biggest hurdle is the race against the clock to figure out (and implement) the best approaches to professional development for teachers and how to tie curriculum modifications to the new standards before the official full-scale rollout of CCSS assessments begins in the 2014–15 academic year.

Because technology is such a crucial element, the widespread concerns about the feasibility of implementing computer-­based assessments on a large scale could disproportionately impact special education students.

“The tidal wave is hitting this coming year,” says Neal Kingston, director of the Center for Educational Testing and Evaluation at the University of Kansas. “A lot of places aren’t used to giving assessments online, and many districts and schools are using old operating systems years after manufacturers have stopped supporting them.”

So even if schools have sufficient equipment to administer assessments (and many don’t), they face major logistical hurdles in ensuring compatibility with the systems that will be used for CCSS assessments.

State of Progress
The forthcoming implementation of CCSS has led to more resources than ever before being devoted to implementing effective instructional supports and interventions to empower special education students to succeed at mastery of rigorous curriculum. Through the two federally funded consortia for special education, Dynamic Learning Maps and National Center and State Collaborative (NCSC), along with countless other groups that have been convened, top special education experts will continue to have opportunities to figure out the best ways to serve this population under new, more rigorous standards.

“It’s a pretty exciting time—we are advancing our understanding of how to hang on to the content while varying the methods of instruction,” says Rachel Quenemoen, NCSC’s project director. “We have 20 years of lessons learned to build on.”  

 —Fall 2013—

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