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How We Can Make Disability Accommodations in Schools More Equitable

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As an educator, I work with students with IEP and 504 plans. IEPs support students with disabilities with specialized instruction, while 504 plans are for students who need support but do not necessarily need specialized instruction. As an educator and somebody who has needed accommodations in school due to severe anxiety and severe depression, I am all for accommodations. However, is it sometimes too much? How do we best provide accommodations to our students on a 504 plan without holding them back and preventing them from learning to navigate the world on their own?

I see some students who do not use their 504 plans at all in my class. They have extended time, for example, and refuse to use it because they either are embarrassed or want to do it on their own like everyone else. Then, I have a handful of students who pull on their 504 plan for every little situation and ask for accommodations and demand them, because they have it documented. At what point do we need to take a step back and say to ourselves, what lessons are we teaching our kids?

There are stories of parents who are wealthy enough to pay for documentation for their child, or who will coax their child into exaggerating a non-existent condition for the extra time advantage on tests. The New York Times reported that while the vast majority of accommodations and diagnoses are truthful, the process itself is incredibly vulnerable to abuse. The data shows that in wealthier districts, the rate and incidence of 504 plans can be drastically increased compared to neighboring, less wealthy communities. The difference can be 6-8% greater and that raises the question, is it because wealthier communities have access to the healthcare that is needed to diagnose the underlying condition(s) and less affluent communities do not, or is the system being taken advantage of? How do we know if the student truly needs the support or is just using the 504 plan for an extra advantage?

Furthermore, how do we know all parents are aware of all the opportunities available to their child at their school, whether they have a disability or not? How do we ensure that all parents are aware of all the opportunities they have to request accommodations for their students? What is to say that two families with students with disabilities both know about the opportunities for accommodations? If one family is more outspoken than another, advocating for their child’s appropriate accommodations, is it appropriate to label them just as looking for an advantage for their child?

While measures need to be taken to ensure fairness in the process of receiving accommodations in education, the system itself needs to be looked at. The state that I teach in requires students to take standardized tests multiple times a year — end-of-quarter assessments given by the district, state-mandated assessments that need to be passed for graduation. There are many more mandated tests that our students need to go through that they are test-taking machines. These tests are timed and hold a lot of weight on their graduation. The pressures are unfair to our kids and especially those with disabilities.

Are mandated tests necessary? What do we gain? Can we rethink education to provide a different way of assessment and evaluation of student learning? While assessments are inevitable in life — work evaluations, tests in schools — can we, as educators, maybe approach them differently? Can a project suffice for somebody who is creative and has test anxiety? Could a presentation be an alternative to a written test for somebody who has dyslexia or a mobility difficulty that prohibits them from writing well?

While the process to acquire accommodations in education has its flaws and areas where it can subject itself to misuse, what can we do as educators to mitigate this misuse of the system? What can we do in the classroom in our instruction to remove the pressure of acquiring accommodations in the first place? Equity starts in the classroom and how we approach learning. If we can create more opportunities within the classroom to demonstrate learning, there would be less pressure to offer as many accommodations. There are so many careers where demonstrating work is done through various avenues — theater performance, business presentation, research project, music production — that tests should not be the only way to demonstrate learning. Tests are only used in school — rarely are tests used in work. So why are we testing our kids with such fervor?

Getty image by Drazen Zigic.

Originally published: December 12, 2021
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