Let’s turn to another eighth-grade reading goal, R-L 8.3:
Analyze how particular lines of dialogue or incidents in a story or drama propel the action, reveal aspects of a character, or provoke a decision.
Now imagine the challenge for a student with autism—even one whose vocabulary and syntax are age appropriate. Autism is largely a social disability, with key deficits in understanding character and motivation and in drawing inferences from dialogues—in real life as much as in reading. Where does the teacher of an autistic student even begin?
Some special-education professionals believe they have the answer. In an article entitled “Core State Standards for Students with Autism: the Challenge for Educators,” published last year in the journal Teaching Exceptional Children, we find Stephen, an eighth grader with Asperger’s Syndrome (mild autism) who is struggling to meet the R-L 8.3. The authors describe a goal-aligned text in which a boy stops going to school after being habitually bullied and ostracized. When asked why the boy quits school, Stephen can’t answer. Presumably, his Asperger’s-related social deficits make it hard for him to recognize the students’ bullying and ostracizing as such, and to grasp the emotional and behavioral effects on the boy.
How, the authors ask, can Stephen’s teacher help him meet R-L 8.3? By creating a comic strip that shows the characters’ thoughts, including a thought bubble for Matt that reads "I am a loser. Everyone hates me. I am never going back to school!"
In other words, the teacher can help Stephen meet the standard by giving away the answer!
But the answer to one specific configuration of dialogue, action, and character does not teach a child with autism how any particular lines of dialogue reveal traits or provoke actions in characters. If it did, we’d have screaming headlines about a simple cure for one of the core deficits of autism.
Not all students will succeed with America’s Founding Documents, foundational American literature, and/or Shakespeare. But well-meaning aspirations for special-needs children can foster deep and widespread denial—in particular among educators facing high-stakes standards. One of the special-education professors quoted in Education Week, for example, asks, in reference to students with severe cognitive disabilities, "Why would we take a whole class of citizens and say you don't get to learn the standards that we say are most important for everyone?"
"Most important for everyone": That’s the real problem. Forcing all students into the same, age-pegged standards deprives atypical students of optimized learning opportunities and attainable goals at their level of developmental readiness. Far better for an eighth grader who is four years behind in language to read texts with vocabulary and sentence complexity just above her current skill level than to struggle through 67-word sentences in Tom Sawyer using story boards as crutches. Far better for a student with autism to engage with simplified social scenarios that he can work through on his own than to muddle through complex ones that need to be explained to him piecemeal. As any of my special-ed student teachers can tell you, and as research has shown, restricting students to curricula beyond their cognitive capacities substantially lowers their achievement.
The purported goal of the Common Core is success for all students. But success for all requires openness towards cognitive diversity, and isn’t so easily standardized.