Students with Disabilities Deserve LEGIT Solutions: Lightweight Evidence-Gathering Instruments and Tools

Brooklyn LAB LEGIT

Young people with learning and attention issues are as full of potential as their peers and can achieve and contribute at the highest levels. But because most schools are designed with an almost exclusive focus on “average students,” students with disabilities too often do not receive adequate supports. As a result, they are much more likely to repeat a grade, get suspended, drop out, and take longer to earn a high school diploma.

Race and class compound these equity gaps, and the COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated inequities. Not only are students with disabilities, particularly Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) students, experiencing greater challenges at home and with school, teachers have even fewer opportunities to connect with their students. Too often, educators lack a meaningful understanding of how social and emotional well-being, student background, cognition, and domain-specific (e.g. math or writing) factors shape student engagement and outcomes. It’s typically students with disabilities that may benefit from such insight.

To support these students to learn, thrive, and meet their full potential, we need to better understand all students’ unique needs, as well as their life and learning experiences. To do this, we must overhaul schoolwide assessment systems while centering the needs of middle and high school students with mild and moderate disabilities (e.g., specific learning disabilities, ADHD, or speech impairment). At Brooklyn LAB, we aim to serve these students––and to apply innovative technologies and practices designed to eradicate the achievement gap. Just as the disadvantages that hold students back are interconnected, so too must solutions embrace a holistic approach.

Since the pandemic began, we have witnessed the failure of our government to meet the needs of its citizens, particularly those who are most vulnerable. School communities have felt (and been) overwhelmed. Rather than seeking to identify and respond to challenges, we have resigned ourselves to tiptoeing around the periphery of the student experience, hoping not to see all the needs going unfulfilled. As educators, it’s time to be present to student well-being and needs, to embrace better evidence gathering, and to make substantial, sustained investments in diagnostics focused on student learning and thriving. The way to do this is through Lightweight Evidence-Gathering Instruments and Tools (LEGIT) solutions. To find our footing and help schools settle the ball, our sector must commit to build, refine, and evaluate lightweight diagnostics and technological components to create the conditions for better evidence-gathering that will connect teachers with effective, customized solutions to improve learning and well-being for students with disabilities.

Measurement is one of the essential tools schools use to understand and improve teaching practices and support strategies for all students. Yet most educational assessment tools on the market fail to give teachers what they need to calibrate and deliver the right intervention at the right time for students with disabilities, especially those who are also BIPOC or living in poverty.

As Professor Edmund W. Gordon—the namesake of the Edmund W. Gordon Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School—communicates so compellingly, assessment is too often done to learners rather than for them. At public schools, assessment is high stakes, but too frequently does not serve, inform, and enhance teaching and learning. Similarly, practices and products do not allow for the effective assessment of academic and nonacademic development and competencies.

How Current Assessment Tools are Failing Students

Current assessment practices include a number of limitations:

Students with disabilities and those who serve them do not have efficient and effective diagnostics. While evidence-gathering shapes Individualized Education Plan (IEP) processes, assessment today fails to deliver information that is actionable and meaningful for educators. Breakthroughs in special education require improvements in measurement. Evidence informs the identification of early learning and behavioral differences and initial evaluations. It guides evaluation reports and re-evaluations. Special education processes are premised on evidence-based conversations regarding goals and outcomes. Moreover, current assessments, which are used for high-stakes decisions such as promotion, graduation, and college admission, are poorly aligned with course work and too often exhibit test bias.

Assessments capture snapshots in time, and the data ecosystem does not yet allow for safe, seamless portability of student-level data. Summative exams were designed for comparability across schools for accountability purposes. These static pictures of achievement fail to capture progressions of mastery that would allow teachers to adjust and improve instruction as they go. The data ecosystem also fails to make data accessible and shareable at the student level. As a result, teachers, parents, and service providers do not have the complete and historic data picture necessary to tailor instruction and supports.

Early-stage measure design and development is not systematic or robust. The overemphasis on dated notions of validity and reliability means that many assessments fail to achieve accuracy, relevancy, and usefulness, which are particularly important for serving students with disabilities. Importantly, existing measurement instruments fail to capture useful descriptions, insights, and applications.

Design and development is exclusive and disconnected. Because assessments are created without the input of people who have been marginalized by the education system, most assessments test the wrong things and weaponize the results. The field’s ability to innovate is limited because it excludes students, families, educators, and administrators who have the most knowledge about how the education system is failing students with disabilities.

Smart supply and smart demand do not send clear signals. Assessment research and development (R&D) infrastructure lacks the cohesion necessary to make the whole sector stronger than its parts. Most investments are concentrated in later-stage functions, which means there’s a dearth of support for innovative, lightweight instruments that are grounded in the learning sciences. In effect, there are no tools that measure mastery and that support that kind of deep, personalized learning necessary to prepare youth for the future.

Teachers need new tools that capture students’ cognition and competencies—all in service of tailoring instructional decisions to individual needs. We need measurement tools that more holistically capture what’s happening with students, from their healthy development to school readiness, from mindsets for self and school to perseverance.

How LEGIT Solutions Bridge the Gap

Whereas heavyweight tools require time, expertise, and high costs, LEGIT solutions should be easy to use, cheap, and accessible, like an eye chart. They should dive deeper than traditional approaches to assessment, charting youth’s aspirations, pain points, neurodevelopmental processes, and strengths, to help educators build empathy for their students and assist them in crafting a more holistic, tailored set of supports. Whereas current assessments look at what students have learned, LEGIT solutions should aim to reveal how students master the building blocks of learning.

LEGIT solutions that must strive to provide four things:

  • Comprehensiveness: The range of measurement approaches should generate a variety of evidence and provide multiple pathways to demonstrate mastery.
  • Coherence: Assessment systems should be vertically coherent—from summative to formative assessments—and horizontally coherent with curriculum and instruction.
  • Continuity: An assessment system should provide continuous records of progress.
  • Dynamism: Tools should diagnose and guide personalized learning and supports.

LEGIT Solutions and Inclusive Design

LEGIT solutions are just one tool we can apply to reimagine education to serve all learners. As Brooklyn LAB has learned through our reopening journey, this moment demands effective communications, a deeper understanding of students’ “user journeys,” and directed research. The COVID-19 pandemic, lockdowns, economic recession, and our country’s current reckoning with racial injustice have drawn bright lines around historical inequalities that we can heal only by tearing down old systems and building new ones.

All of these tools, including LEGIT solutions, fall under the umbrella of inclusive design, which engages school communities who have relevant expertise and experience. By focusing on students and schools who have historically been marginalized, we can home in on real student needs, which will ultimately create a more cohesive and comprehensive experience for all students.

At Brooklyn LAB, our mission is to ensure that every student has customized supports and opportunities to learn. LEGIT solutions have the potential to help educators, families, and students understand the strengths and challenges of each learner so that every student is set up to learn and thrive. For this to work, educators must be open to integrating lightweight evidence-gathering into their curriculum regularly, and to making changes to individual learning plans based on each student’s individual needs.

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Erick Tucker Advisory Board

Eric Tucker

Eric Tucker is President of the Gordon Commission Study Group. He has served as CEO of Equity by Design, Cofounder and Superintendent of Brooklyn Laboratory Charter Schools, Cofounder of Educating All Learners Alliance, Executive Director of InnovateEDU, Director at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and Chief Academic Officer and Cofounder of the National Association for Urban Debate Leagues. He has taught in Providence and Chicago. Eric is also a member of the Getting Smart advisory board.

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