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Common Core worrisome for special ed students

New standards may be 'overwhelming' for children with learning challenges

Parents of children with learning challenges have reason to be concerned about the new national curriculum standards, known as Common Core, according to a pair of local special education officials.

"It's going to be a big problem that's going to lead to a lot of problems for a lot of kids," said Christine Case-Lo, co-founder of the Learning Challenges Committee, which functions a bit like a multi-school district PTA for special needs children.

Case-Lo, a Mountain View resident and the mother of a severly autistic boy, said she isn't particularly worried for her son, who spends all day in special education classes. Her "major concern" is for the students with learning disabilities who are "mainstreamed" or taught in regular classrooms.

"Teachers have been given no training on how to deal with Common Core and the kind of accommodations for kids who need extra help," she said.

According to Cynthia Loleng-Perez, special education director for the Mountain View Whisman School District, that's not true at least at her district. "The Special Education department has provided training this year to all staff and will continue to do so in partnership with other departments as the district rolls out the implementation of Common Core State Standards (CCSS,)" she said in an email to the Voice. "To date, we have provided two training (sessions) in CCSS specifically to our special education staff."

Loleng-Perez did acknowledge that the state has not provided any funding specifically earmarked for Common Core and special education together. "Notwithstanding the failure of the state to provide additional funding, the district will take appropriate steps to ensure proper implementation of the CCSS for students with disabilities," she wrote.

Ruthie Wunderling, a learning specialist, education therapist and founder of Wunderling Learning, agreed with Case-Lo adding that she anticipates children on the autism spectrum and with conditions like dyslexia will be particularly challenged and frustrated by the new standards.

That's because the Common Core State Standards place much more emphasis on critical thinking and analysis of problems. In an effort to discourage teachers from teaching to the test, and to push students to dig deeper into the subjects they are learning, Common Core tests will require many more written-out answers, which explain how a pupil arrived at an answer. Not only will test-takers be asked what but now they'll be asked how and why.

"For many of the children who have learning differences, getting to the answer is difficult enough," Wunderling said. Now they will not only be asked to answer a math problem, but they'll be required to explain how they arrived at their answer with proper syntax, grammar and punctuation. "It requires so much more multitasking with your thinking" which can be very difficult for people with autism.

Case-Lo said she knows of one local fourth-grader with high-functioning autism who takes upwards of two hours to finish homework assignments. "That's ridiculous," she said, implying that it is only going to get worse for that particular student if teachers start requiring more writing. And she expects they will if only because many instructors aren't being properly trained in how to help functionally autistic students.

While Wunderling said she understands the goal of Common Core is to move away from the previous system of rote memorization, she said that rote memorization works better for children on the autism spectrum. For those who can handle the new system, it will be an improvement, she said.

"Just because they can't express the why doesn't mean they don't know how to do the basic math," Wunderling said. "I think there needs to be a way of measuring both ways. I think there needs to be a bridge."

However, unless local districts, schools and teachers take initiative, no such bridge exists. "There are no special tests for the CCSS," said Loleng-Perez. But, she added, the district will be administering a series of Common Core-style tests, called Smarter Balanced Assessments, to track students' performance before they take the Common Core exam. Accommodations may be provided to special needs students based on how the do on the pre-tests.

"As the district moves forward with the implementation of the Common Core State Standards for all students, we are ensuring that we include students with special needs," Loleng-Perez said. "I am working closely with Cathy Baur, our assistant superintendent of education services, to ensure that we address the needs of students with disabilities as the district plans for CCSS."

Wunderling is skeptical that any district could be prepared for what is to come -- noting that very little is known about what the Common Core tests will actually look like. "It's going to be overwhelming," she said.

Parents concerned about what the new standards will mean for their children will have a chance to ask questions at an upcoming meeting of the Learning Challenges Committee on March 10, Case-Lo said. A time and location have yet to be set for the meeting, but updates will be posted on the group's website.

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