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Saturday, November 29, 2014

Common Core, Special Education, and High-Functioning Autism

Alison DiNisco writes at District Administration:
The Common Core addresses students with disabilities in a 1 ½-page document. It states that special-needs students must have support services, individualized instruction and assistive technology to “enable their access to the general education curriculum.”
However, it does not state what these services are or how they should be implemented. Changes in curriculum must “not change the standards, but allow students to learn within the framework of the Common Core,” the document states.
It’s up to states and districts to determine how to implement accommodations such as simplifying texts and deciding appropriate achievement levels for special-needs students, Taub says.
Approximately 6 percent of the U.S. student population has significant cognitive disabilities, including general intellectual disabilities, autistic spectrum disorders, and language and reading impairments that aren’t helped by enlarged text or hearing aids, says Katharine Beals, a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education who has written about the Common Core’s impact on special education.
“The Common Core is one-size-fits-all, and there isn’t room for a student who has a cognitive age below expectations to get remediation,” Beals says. “The philosophy is driven by good intent, but it’s a lot of wishful thinking. There’s a lot of research out there suggesting that if you want a child to make progress, the most sufficient way to do that is to drop things down to their current level of development.”
In February, Beals wrote at The Atlantic:
So what happens to the approximately six percent of the student population with significant cognitive disabilities—whether general intellectual disabilities, language impairments, reading impairments, non-verbal learning disabilities, or autistic spectrum disorders? What happens when their classrooms function under a set of guidelines that ignore their skills and specific needs?
In general, the news isn’t good. Last November, an issue of Education Week ran several articles on special-needs students and the Common Core. One article characterizes the English language arts goals as “largely unmet.” Another reportsmore than half of teachers surveyed saying they are unprepared to teach the standards to high-needs students.
In October, she wrote at Education News that he Common Core Standards tap directly into the fundamental disability of autism:
Neurologically speaking, autism turns out to be just as general an intellectual disability as low IQ is—even when IQ scores are high. As recent research by neurologist Nancy Minshew has shown, autistic individuals, regardless of IQ, have a serious deficit in their ability to process complex information. Included in this complex information processing deficit are a host of general impairments, including impairments in the ability “to detect structure or inherent organization,” i.e., to figure out how things are structured or organized. Also impaired are “higher-order language comprehension,” “social cognition,” and the ability to draw inferences from context. (Minshew, 2006)
Underlying all these impairments, Minshew and others have found, is a hard-wired neurological reality: specifically, a “functional underconnectivity among cortical language regions” that impairs the processing of complex information and particularly affects higher-order language comprehension. (Minshew, 2006)
Unfortunately for students on the spectrum, the kinds of tasks we now know are most impaired in autism are also the kinds of tasks that distinguish the Common Core’s English and Language Arts Standards from all past standards.

To those in favor of applying the Common Core Standards to all or most students with disabilities, the answer is accommodation. Some accommodations, for some disabilities, are obvious: sound amplification for hearing impaired students; enlarged screens for visually impaired students. Other accommodations aim at specific learning disabilities: text-to-speech apps for students with dyslexia, for example.
But autism is different. As a complex information processing disorder, it is, as Minshew observes, the opposite of a specific learning disability. Specific learning disabilities include impairments like dyslexia, which mainly affects reading and leaves other intellectual skills intact. Autism, in contrast, impairs a broad range of intellectual skills. In this way, it is more akin to a general cognitive impairment like low IQ. At the same time, however, high functioning autism is a disorder specifically of higher-level cognition, and thus, doesn’t entail poor performance on the simpler sub-skills measured by IQ tests. At the higher functioning end of the spectrum, autism is, indeed, invisible to the standard cognitive assessments that schools use to determine special needs.

Minshew, N. J.,Webb, S. J., Williams, D. L., & Dawson, G. (2006). Neuropsychology and neurophysiology of autism spectrum disorders. In S.O. Moldin & J. L. R. Rubenstein, eds, Understanding Autism: From Basic Neuroscience to Treatment, (pp. 378-415).