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The Myth of the Normal Curve

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Edited By Curt Dudley-Marling and Alex Gurn

It is generally taken for granted that human behavior distributes along the lines of a bell-shaped, normal curve. This idea underpins much educational theory, research, and practice. There is, however, a considerable body of research demonstrating that the normal curve grossly misrepresents the human experience. Yet the acceptance of the normal curve continues to be used to pathologize children and adults with disabilities by positioning them as abnormal. Collectively, the contributors to this volume critique the ideology of the normal curve. Some explicitly challenge the assumptions that underpin the normal curve. Others indirectly critique notions of normality by examining the impact of normal curve thinking on educational policies and practices. Many contributors go beyond critiquing the normal curve to propose alternative ways to imagine human differences. All contributors agree that the hegemony of the normal curve has had a devastating effect on those presumed to live on the boundaries of normal.

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8 Assessment and the Policing of the Norm - Eileen W. Ball & Beth Harry 105

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The hegemony of the norm in American education is nowhere so evident and so dangerous as in the process for assessing children for placement in special education programs. A three-year ethnographic study (Harry & Klingner, 2006) of the placement process for children in high incidence categories, learning disabilities (LD), cognitive disabilities (CD), and emotional/behavioral disorder (EBD), noted an explicit faith in assessment as the scientific gateway to special education. The vast majority of school personnel in the study referred to a child’s special education placement as the appropriate outcome of a relatively infallible testing process based on developmental and achievement norms. A typical ex- pression of this sentiment was, “You meet criteria or you don’t meet criteria. The testing stands on its own” (p. 103). The findings of that study largely contradicted this belief, showing that the assessment process was fraught with pre-conceived notions about children and their families, excessive pressure from external forces such as state-wide testing, as well as the opinions of referring teachers, and a per- vasive, deep-seated belief that the source of children’s difficulties lay within the children. Because of this belief, child-study teams paid little or no attention to the classroom context from which children were referred; rather, they relied on the testing process to identify presumed intrinsic deficits and weed out from general education those children whom the testing proved did not “belong.” In this chapter we take issue with this unquestioned belief as it applies to the two most crucial aspects...

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