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The Unexplored Standards: Common Core's Impact on Special-Needs Education

By Lauren Mitchell, Legislative Assistant

February 2, 2015

While attending a Common Core training session, teacher Jennifer Curley asked how Common Core would affect children outside traditional education, thinking of her own special-needs students. “The response? I was told they would be a ‘sacrificial population.’” 1

In just under two years, 45 states joined the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSS). Critics say this hasty adoption overlooked special-needs students, and left their teachers without a game plan for meeting new education requirements. Though several states have since withdrawn from the Common Core,  Ted Kennedy, Jr., called the initial adoption process “too much, too fast,” 2 and a number of think tanks and teachers groups have spoken out against Common Core’s fast implementation pace. The Learning First Alliance, in response to CCSS field-testing exams by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), stated that “rushing to make high-stakes decisions . . .  based on assessments of the standards before they have been fully and properly implemented is unwise . . . Such actions have the potential to undermine the standards themselves—and thus our opportunity to improve education for all students.” 3

Common Core’s development neglected to make provision for special-needs services, which support 13.5 percent of the total student population, according to the U.S. Department of Education. 4 Millions of children have mental, emotional, or physical disabilities that affect their learning. The question of how Common Core will apply to them remains largely unexplored.

Inequitable Instruction

Under CCSS, the learning curve for children with special needs grows considerably longer. Parents and teachers wonder whether the standards can practically accommodate special needs in their one-size-fits-all goal of college and career readiness.  As one Louisiana parent explained about her autistic son, “It takes much more than raising the bar or saying you believe students with disabilities can achieve for them to actually achieve. You see, he has only answered a ‘why’ question a handful of times in his life. Now he’s asked ‘why,’ ‘how’ and ‘explain your answer’ all day long.” 5

The Common Core requires special-needs students to achieve the same level of academic proficiency as their nondisabled peers, despite these students needing up to 30–40 additional days of instruction to learn the same material. 6 Without provisions for additional instruction, special-needs students will be unprepared for the eight- to ten-hour Common Core tests.

According to the 1997 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Act, students with special needs are entitled to individualized education programs (IEPs), which allow teachers the flexibility to meet their students’ individual needs. IEP teams composed of students’ parents, teachers, doctors/counselors, and other experts craft each program’s agenda and curriculum.

The Common Core standards overlook this aspect of equitable education, leaving teachers without guidance as to how IEPs will merge with the new standards and tests. In some states, such as New York, state-imposed curriculum guidelines shackle special-needs children to scripted lesson plans meant for more advanced learning levels. 7

Margaret J. McLaughlin, professor of special education at University of Maryland College Park, explains that “teachers have not been given the time and the training to meet and craft meaningful blueprints for [special-needs] students.” 8

Barriers to Assistance 

Common Core’s only reference to special needs is found in a two-page section titled “Application to Students with Disabilities.” This states that children with special needs must be given access to support services, individualized instruction, and technology to meet “the rigor and high expectations of the Common Core State Standards.” 9  However, the Common Core test consortia are not required to develop assessments in accordance with accessibility standards such as Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 or section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. Thus, there is no guarantee regarding assessment compatibility with assistive technology. 10

Both the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium have attempted to remedy this oversight by providing additional tools to test takers with special needs, including on-screen calculators, magnified print, and text-to-speech readers. Unfortunately, these additions are hardly the flexible, individualized solutions crucial to maintaining equity for IEP students. In the words of David Dikter, chief executive officer of the Assistive Technology Industry Association, “Both of the [consortia] thought they can get around this by saying, ‘We built in similar technology into the assessment itself’ . . . It’s saying one size fits all, and that is not true and it has never been true.” 11

The inability of students to use their own assistive technology on Common Core tests worries special-education experts.  “It is absolutely critical for students with disabilities to be able to use their own AT [assistive technology] rather than being forced to learn built-in access features or a different AT product that is coupled with the assessment and may result in an invalid and overly depressed score,” the Missouri School Boards’ Association stated.  The policies pertaining to the built-in test tools are “insensitive to the time it would take individuals with disabilities to sufficiently learn an unfamiliar piece of assisted technology to yield a valid assessment [and] unnecessarily complex and burdensome in time and cost for schools and teachers to implement.” 12 Without being allowed to use technology from their everyday lives, special-needs students are forced to overcome unfair hurdles in order to score well on already challenging tests.

Common Core substitution technology (built-in test tools that replace a student’s own assistive technology) does not equally serve all students with special needs. In the SBAC pilot, all special-needs students were restricted to using an on-screen calculator. This meant that blind students, denied the use of a calculator with a talk-back feature, were denied access to a calculator altogether. Students with physical disabilities requiring a calculator with oversized buttons were effectively denied the use of a calculator as well. 13

Common Core replacement technology puts visually impaired students at a disadvantage in other ways. Many online tests are not compatible with students’ Braille-conversion technology, and paper tests cost hundreds of dollars. Maryland School for the Blind assistant principal Joshua Irzyk says that a multiple-choice geometry question, for instance, could be five pages long—one page for the question and four pages to display each of four choices. “We've looked at the PARCC website,” Irzyk said, "and I’m certainly concerned about how a blind student is going to access some of these things.” 14

Take Action

The Common Core discriminates against students with special needs by blocking fair access to instruction and testing. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act mandate that students with disabilities must have equal opportunities to “reach the same level of achievement” through the provision of access features. As it stands, Common Core testing restrictions on assistive technology are effectively (and illegally) excluding special-education students from college- and career-readiness programs and tests.

States across the country are realizing the detrimental impact of one-size-fits-all instruction and testing, as reflected by the recent rejection of Common Core in Indiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Louisiana. The voices of parents and teachers are making a difference. Your involvement in the pushback against Common Core is crucial to protecting freedom in education.

For more information on why HSLDA opposes the Common Core visit our website.
To voice your Common Core concerns, find your representatives’ contact information here.

1 Jennifer Curley, “New York’s ‘shoddy’ Common Core rollout puts special-needs students at risk; a veteran teacher demands a moratorium,” The Hechinger Report, March 6, 2014, accessed June 9, 2014,

2 Marcia Chambers, “Wilson, Kennedy Question Common Core,” Branford Eagle (blog), New Haven Independent News, June 17, 2014, accessed June 18, 2014,

3 Learning First Alliance, “LFA: Give Educators More Time to Successfully Implement Common Core State Standards,” news release,  April 8, 2014, accessed June 18, 2014,

4Truth in Labeling: Disproportionality in Special Education (Washington, D.C.: National Education Association, 2007) accessed July 1, 2014,

5 Valerie Strauss, “Mom: My autistic son is lost in a ‘sea of standards’ at school,” The Answer Sheet (blog), The Washington Post, October 13, 2013, accessed July 14, 2014

6 Hallie Smith, “What the Common Core Standards Mean for Special Education Students,” The Science of Learning Blog, Scientific Learning, January 21, 2014, accessed July 14, 2014,

7 Amanda Fairbanks, “Can special education students keep up with the Common Core?” The Hechinger Report, July 29, 2014, accessed July 31, 2014,

8 Christina A. Samuels, “Common Core’s Promise Collides with IEP Realities: Special Education Teachers Struggle to Make Sure Individual Education Programs Align with Standards,” Education Week 33, no. 10 (October 30, 2014), accessed June 5, 2014,

9 Common Core State Standards Initiative,Application to Students with Disabilities,” accessed July 1, 2014,

10 Common Core State Standards Assessments Accessibility by Students with Disabilities (Missouri School Boards’ Association and Missouri Council of Administrators for Special Education, 2013), accessed July 15, 2014,

11 Christina A. Samuels, “Tech Assistance in Testing Poses Practical Issues,” Education Week 33, no. 10 (October 30, 2014), accessed June 28, 2014,

12 Common Core State Standards Assessments Accessibility by Students with Disabilities (Missouri School Boards’ Association and Missouri Council of Administrators for Special Education, 2013), accessed July 15, 2014,

13 Ibid.

14 Samuels, “Tech Assistance in Testing.”