Academic journal article International Journal of Instructional Media

High-Stakes Environments and Effective Student-Teacher Relationships: Some Lessons from Special Education

Academic journal article International Journal of Instructional Media

High-Stakes Environments and Effective Student-Teacher Relationships: Some Lessons from Special Education

Article excerpt


The high-stakes testing environment is under scrutiny in many school districts across the United States as examination results in a variety of states continue to show that large numbers of children are unprepared for the rigors of new state mandates. For example, The New York Times reported recently (Friday, December 22, 2000) that Arizona children achieved a numbing statewide failure rate of 84% on the state's new high school mathematics exam taken by all sophomores. According to the news report, after pilot testing over two years, Arizona education officials finally conceded that the exam was too difficult for their high school students.

New York, among other states, is phasing in more difficult examinations over a multi-year period. School districts, teachers, parents and students are responding in a number of ways to meet the challenge. Some of these responses are significant in the changes they are producing in the lives of children. In Westchester County, for example, some fourth graders had their Christmas vacation pinched short when they chose to attend study classes the day after Christmas to prepare for the looming English Language Arts examination (Journal News, Thursday, December 28, 2000). With the sound of jingle bells still ringing in their ears, these little ones postponed playing with toys and other merriments to drill for the new test being imposed by the state.

While changes in other areas of New York may have less of an impact on children's vacation time, concerns about significant failure rates last year have prompted many schools to initiate extra-study programs to help children cope with the new requirements. And the new mandates are not solely for children in regular education.

Children in special education, too, are confronting significant challenges as states impose increased graduation requirements, more difficult coursework and single-test measures of graduation eligibility. More and more, children in special education are expected to perform on a par with students in regular education or be denied access to high school diplomas and future opportunities. While the elevated expectations set forth for children in school districts across the country hold some promise of improving the educational landscape, unanticipated failure rates emerging into view are challenging the taken-for-granted merits of these high-stakes developments for all students.

This article will discuss children in special education, particularly children experiencing emotional and behavioral problems, those typically classified with severe emotional disturbance by school district committees on special education. The value of the student-teacher relationship and some assumptions about special education schooling will be compared to prevailing high-stakes conceptions pressing in from all sides.


In work with children classified with serious emotional disturbance, individualized education plans (IEPS) detail specific goals and objectives that teachers and students devote their efforts to meet. These goals and objectives include social, emotional and behavioral components beyond typical academic requirements and relate to the specific problems of each student. The emotional problems and difficulties recognized by the school and family in the committee on special education process frequently hinder full participation in the regular curriculum and may prompt placement outside the typical school environment in an alternative setting.

The plans developed by the committee on special education take into account the obstacles confronted by the child in achieving regular school expectations and contain strategies for addressing the developmental demands experienced in elementary and secondary schools. But whether in alternative settings or special education classrooms in the home school district, the child's teacher must be relied upon in the day-to-day implementation of IEP goals--in concert with the family and other professionals--to help these young people come to terms with their learning, emotional and behavioral problems. …

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