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Common Core and Students with Sensory Issues and Autism: We Need to Talk

Updated: Sep 5, 2021

Temple Grandin has expressed her thoughts on Common Core, differentiated learning, and kids with autism and sensory issues. She raises very good questions and important concerns. Common Core, one of the biggest changes in education in the U.S. in our lifetimes, is a very serious topic that parents and educators must discuss, especially in terms of how it will impact children who learn differently. There are many (like me!) who are seriously worried, with good reason. Dialogue and conversation are crucial at this point. In some states, Common Core is well underway and we’re seeing many problems, but Common Core supporters are not offering solutions. Our kids are counting on us to know how they will be impacted by the combination of new, more skill-based standards and the aligned standardized tests, and curricula and textbooks that are aligned to Common Core. There are many issues but let’s focus on the concerns surrounding kids with sensory issues, including kids with autism.

The standards are qualitatively different from past standards and therefore more likely to drive curriculum decisions. This is important, because sensory kids, who process information differently, often think differently. The standards include some knowledge-based standards but many are skills-based standards. Here’s an example from the first grade math standards: from the math standards: “1.OA.6: Add and subtract within 20, demonstrating fluency for addition and subtraction within 10. Use strategies such as counting on; making ten (e.g., 8 + 6 = 8 + 2 + 4 = 10 + 4 = 14); decomposing a number leading to a ten (e.g., 13 – 4 = 13 – 3 – 1 = 10 – 1 = 9); using the relationship between addition and subtraction (e.g., knowing that 8 + 4 = 12, one knows 12 – 8 = 4); and creating equivalent but easier or known sums (e.g., adding 6 + 7 by creating the known equivalent 6 + 6 + 1 = 12 + 1 = 13).” A child who memorizes the math fact 13-4 = 9 may well be stumped by having to “demonstrate” it this way. Ditto the child who subtracts 4 from 10 to get 6 and adds it to 3 to get 9. Should a teacher grade the child as wrong for getting to the answer her own way? Will demonstrating “deconstruction” be on classroom tests and standardized tests? Implementation matters tremendously, and we know that many textbooks and teachers are interpreting these types of standards in a concrete, literal way that many call “the Common Core way” or “Common Core math.” What about the kids who learn best by memorizing math facts, freeing up their short-term memory? New research conducted at Stanford University suggests this is a better way for allchildren to prepare for higher math.

Many early childhood experts say the math and English Language Arts standards for the early grades are developmentally inappropriate, and sensory kids often have developmental delays that would exacerbate this problem. Sensory kids, whether they tend to be avoiders more than seekers or vice versa, need plenty of movement to self-regulate. They have a harder time than neurotypical peers do focusing and attending without plenty of movement throughout the day as part of a sensory diet. Are the standards and their implementation, including the number of standardized tests they’re required sit still and take, appropriate for sensory kids who do not have IEPs? Are the new tests, starting as early as Kindergarten, that are designed to prepare them for “college and career readiness” healthy for our kids physically, emotionally, or mentally? What is the plan for supporting sensitive children who are strongly, negatively impacted by the developmentally inappropriate standards in the early grades? And how can we know the standards in the later grades, which push certain skills, are appropriate for all learners? One size does not fit all!

The call for standardized testing using tests aligned Common Core, and for more standardized testing of students with IEPs as Arne Duncan, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education has announced, will greatly impact students with autism and sensory processing issues. The PARCC tests for Common Core, for example, have been identified as very problematic, in part because they were implemented before teachers could be trained to teach in a way that would help students perform better on Common Core tests. The Smarter Balanced tests for Common Core have been identified as problematic, too. Sensory kids often have poorer self-regulation of mood and focus than do their neurotypical peers. It is very stressful for any child to take a problematic test on unfamiliar computer software and equipment. It is even more stressful for children with anxiety. Child psychologists and social workers, such as Maria Calamaria, whose casework is in Suffolk County, NY, have observed students exhibiting alarmingly unhealthy behaviors, including vomiting and self-mutilation, because of the pressure of Common Core-aligned curricula and tests. “Why would we even care if the standards are developmentally inappropriate? You can answer that in one word: Stress.” says child psychologist Dr. Megan Koschnick.

What’s more, Dr. Gary Thompson of the Early Life Child Psychology and Education Center in Utah, has brought into question Common Core standardized testing’s effect on “African American, Latino, and delightfully quirky child(ren)” because of the high stakes academic consequences.

If we’re worried about serving our special education students, is more testing, aligned with standards known to be developmentally inappropriate, really what they need? Or do they need services, paid for in accordance with IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which has never been fully funded out of fear of “overdiagnosing”disabilities. For many whose children have been denied adequate services to support their child with sensory issues and/or autism in receiving a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment, as federal law requires, the new trend of requiring even more testing of special ed kids–above and beyond the tests done to determine their specific deficits–is profoundly disturbing.

The Atlantic recently asked some hard questions about Common Core’s effect on children in special education. Edweek ran a piece on the challenges of aligning IEPs to the restrictive Common Core standards and tests. As the Edweek article points out, assistive technology needed by students to perform well on tests may not be provided or it may not function properly. How much do these tests cost states and districts? Where else could that money go to benefit our kids who have higher needs? States are competing for “Race to the Top” funds. Why are we “racing” and what is the “top” that we’re aiming for when it comes to children with sensory issues and learning differences?

As parents, we know we have an obligation to our children to advocate for them at school. As a parent who is very concerned about students with special education needs due to sensory processing disorder and/or autism or learning disabilities and/or giftedness combined with learning differences, I am extremely skeptical of this educational experiment called Common Core. I am convinced it has to be treated as an experiment, which means it should result in no financial consequences for any district or state that implements it or doesn’t implement it. We should be asking hard questions and exploring what to do to fix the standards. Using our vulnerable kid as guinea pigs is not a wise or responsible choice. Punishing states financially for not pressuring parents who opt their children out of standardized testing is not acceptable! Parents should not be pitted against their local school boards, who are pitted against the states, which are pitted against the federal government to prove that all kids are taking standardized tests according to a federally determined schedule. No Child Left Behind turned up the volume on standardized testing and that experiment has not helped children to get a better education.

I encourage you to engage in dialogue about Common Core’s effect on kids with sensory issues who often have co-morbid conditions (such as autism) and pronounced learning differences. Tell me your thoughts. Engage in the conversation on social media including on the Raising Your Sensory Smart Child Facebook page, in your school district’s school board meetings and forums, and around kitchen tables and in public gatherings in your area. We need to look out for our kids and engage in a deeper dialogue about Common Core that goes beyond politics. Our kids are individuals, and policies that make it increasingly difficult to get them the individualized education plans they need must be questioned—strongly.

Learning more about helping your child with sensory issues at home, at school, and away in the award-winning Raising a Sensory Smart Child by Lindsey Biel, OTR/L and Nancy Peske.

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