Jason's View

What's My Number? The Antiquated System of IEPs and Numerical Evaluation of Students

10 Feb 2015 by Jason Harris

Recently I went to have my school accommodations for disability extended to take the GRE. This brought me back to a world I haven’t been around for so long: The world of judging a person’s total ability by numbers. And when this is the sole quantifier, it is hard to see potential, and easy to see only what’s wrong.

After two days of testing over multiple subjects, who I am boils down to, “You are this percentile in reading or comprehension or math.” If you do well in a subject that is very good for you, it is kind of brushed over. If you have trouble in something such as math, it is focused on, and you are told that you are going to need a lot of accommodations or work on it.

When numbers are the sole quantifier of a person, it is hard to see their potential, and easy to see only what’s wrong.

This scenario leads us to look into a bigger social issue: people in power being immersed in their work and in some way desensitized to what they are doing. A recent example of this is the talk of police dealing with citizens. In the case of police dealing with civilians, police are used to dealing with people who they suspect to be doing something wrong, while civilians are not always used to dealing with officers and can be flustered. We can sometimes see this with doctors as well, who are so used to giving patients bad news or just a diagnosis, that how this will affect someone who is not used to being told bad medical news is not even thought of.

This leads us to a bigger social issue: people in power being immersed in their work and in some way desensitized to what they are doing.

In the case of educational testing, the person administering the test is used to the language and scale used to describe or quantify people. Even though the person taking tests might be very familiar with disabilities, the foreign terminology used by the test administrator could disenfranchise people. In my own experience, I am very aware that I have trouble with math and concentration and in some other areas. I haven’t really heard it though, or at least not in a long time.

This leads us to a second point about numerical evaluation: We see this all the time in special education and now it has moved over to regular education as well. We have seen for years what teachers learn about students who need accommodations. It is easier to see a person as a disposable object when we just use numbers to describe them. Honestly, seeing those numbers made me question the validity of my own academic achievements. I even asked the tester, “How did I make it this far?” Her answer was somewhat shocking: “You had good accommodations.” First, I am not exactly sure of all the accommodations I have had or how much they have actually helped me. Second, her answer makes it seem like I had no part in my success.

It is easier to see a person as a disposable object when we just use numbers to describe them.

We see many people overcoming adversity. They had help in many cases, but they also did a lot of things themselves. But this isn’t just about how I am evaluated. This process has now taken over in our overall school system. Schools get funding based on students’ grade point averages and test scores. We see standardized tests, while they do have validity, accounting for a disproportionate amount of a person’s ability. We even use a standardized test, the IQ test, to tell how smart people are.

I am not saying we need to get rid of accommodations testing or the SAT or GRE, etc., but we must also be able to take into consideration that we are dealing with people, people who are not as easy to quantify as other study subjects. We must be able to teach to people, not to a single way or strategy.

We must also take into consideration that we are dealing with people, people who are not as easy to quantify as other study subjects. We must be able to teach to people, not to a single way or strategy.


Jason Harris

Founder of Jason’s Connection – an online resource for those with disabilities, mental health, aging and other needs. Jason was awarded an M.S. in Cultural Foundations of Education and Advanced Certificate in Disability Studies from Syracuse University.  Jason is also a Project Coordinator and Research Associate at the Burton Blatt Institute, an international think tank for Disability Rights and Human Justice at Syracuse University.  He regularly contributes to the blog in his own series called Jason’s View and travels the country consulting and speaking about disability issues and rights. To read more from Jason Harris, read Jason's View