Published Online: May 21, 2013
Published in Print: May 22, 2013, as A Spec. Ed. Twist on Common-Core Testing
Updated: May 22, 2013
Includes correction(s): May 22, 2013

Common-Core Tests in Works for Students With Severe Disabilities

Severe cognitive disabilities require unique assessments

Mary Skinner-Alexander, a high school special education teacher in the Sioux Falls, S.D., district, has a student who communicates by directing his gaze at printed cards. Other students in her self-contained special education class of 9th through 12th graders are reading at the level of early-elementary students.

And all will be expected to learn—and be tested on—academics based on the Common Core State Standards.

Two groups of states are working on creating alternate assessments for students with severe cognitive disabilities, in work similar to the better-known test development for the general education population currently underway by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC.

The alternate-assessment consortia are Dynamic Learning Maps, which is made up of 15 states and is based at the University of Kansas in Lawrence; and the National Center and State Collaborative, which includes 23 states, the District of Columbia, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and a group that includes American Samoa, Guam, Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Republic of Palau, and Republic of Marshall Islands. NCSC is managed out of the University of Minnesota. The tests, being developed with federal funding, are to be given for the first time in the 2014-15 school year.

Assessing the '1 Percent'

Two groups of states are devising alternate assessments for students with cognitive disabilities so severe that they are not considered to be candidates for the regular Common Core State Standards assessments. Typically, about 1 percent of students are in this group.

Leaders of the DLM and NCSC consortia say that test design is only one part of their work, and arguably, secondary to developing model lessons, instructional resources, and specific guidance that teachers will need to appropriately apply the standards to a student population that has only relatively recently been exposed to academic work as opposed to just life-skills training.

"We anticipated in our project that we needed to provide a pathway not only for students, but for teachers, in implementation of the Common Core State Standards," said Rachel Quenemoen, the project director for the NCSC.

The project leaders at the DLM are creating a vast web of interconnected skills for teachers to follow, starting from the most basic, that all link to academic standards.

"There's been no large-scale assessment that's been done anything like this before," said Neal Kingston, the project director of the DLM. He said the goal is to embed assessments in instructional materials that teachers want to use anyway.

Under the Radar

The broader common-core effort, adopted by all but four states so far, is experiencing pushback from a variety of activists—including from those who view it as usurping local authority and those who oppose a "test-driven" approach to education. But the alternate-assessment groups have been able to quietly push out their work to educators they say are eager to have the information.

In Sioux Falls, Ms. Skinner-Alexander is piloting math lessons crafted by the NCSC. She said she had been skeptical when she saw the piece she was expected to teach her students on patterns, relations, and functions.

"I thought, there's no way they can do this," she said. But the NCSC separated that part of the math standard down into its component parts; for example, students could be taught to recognize a "growing pattern" of blocks, where each column had more blocks than the one that came before.

Ms. Skinner-Alexander said that through other NCSC resources, some of her students can achieve some basic algebra understanding, either solving for x in a simple equation, or recognizing that x is a variable.

"I do know that teachers are nervous because everyone gets nervous when something new rolls out," she said. "But I think that a lot of people, when they get the materials, will see that they're already doing a lot of this work."

Inclusion Required

The federal government has required that students with severe cognitive impairments be included in "alternate assessments based on alternate achievement standards" since the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 1997. That requirement gathered force with passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001.

The NCLB law allows 1 percent of all students—which equates to about 10 percent of students covered under the idea—to take alternate tests and be counted as proficient for accountability purposes. Supporters say that children who may have never been exposed to regular math or English/language arts instruction were able to show that they were capable of much more than educators previously thought.

The shift to the common core poses a similar challenge for states, and the alternate-assessment groups take different approaches.

While model lessons and instructional tools underpin the work of the NCSC, the work underway at the DLM connects all the standards in a learning map. Each stop on the map offers an opportunity for short assessments or "testlets," as a natural function of instruction throughout the school year. For example, the skill of "identifying a concrete fact in an early informational text" is connected to other skills of greater or lesser complexity. Educators are expected to start at their students' respective levels and guide them through the map.

But even aside from the common core, some educators—as well as parents—have been skeptical of efforts to infuse academics into the lives of students whose mental functioning may be far below their chronological age.

Angela Chada of Broken Arrow, Okla., whose 18-year-old daughter Mary Washer has severe autism and encephalopathy, filed a civil rights complaint in October with the U.S. Department of Education. She charges that the state discriminated against her daughter by limiting the use of certain accommodations on state tests. The federal office did not take up her complaint, but goaded by her situation, Oklahoma lawmakers passed a bill in April that allows exceptions to its rule that all students, even the most intellectually disabled, must pass four of seven academic end-of-course tests in order to earn a diploma.

Ms. Chada said that her daughter's performance on assessments was more like "fraud" than real testing. Her daughter can handle some academic work, but by high school, Ms. Chada said, the main focus should have been on more functional skills. "She's still learning how to write her name," Ms. Chada said.

Setting Expectations

Allison Wohl, the executive director of the Collaboration to Promote Self-Determination, an advocacy group in Washington for people with severe disabilities, said that when students are educated only on functional skills, they're being set up for a lifetime of segregated work.

"We need to set the expectations that these kids need to learn, just like everyone else," she said. "We may teach them in a modified way, but they need to have access to that content."

Michigan, a DLM state, is beyond that debate, said Vincent Dean, the director of the office of standards and quality assessments for the state department of education. The state jumped into the DLM group because it felt the group's work matched Michigan's current practice, and the state wanted to have a role in steering the project.

"It's not if we will assess these students, it's how best do we do that," Mr. Dean said.

Related Blog

The NCSC and the DLM are working with a fraction of the resources that the general education consortia have received. The Education Department awarded the NCSC $45 million in 2010; the DLM received $22 million. That's in contrast to the $360 million being shared between PARCC and Smarter Balanced. The specialized work is also being done against the same 2014-15 deadline.

"The time lines are very, very short. But you know what? You get opportunities, you take them," said Ms. Quenemoen of the NCSC.

Those in the profession, such as Jill Bahti, a special education coach in the 14,300-student Alhambra Elementary district in Phoenix, agree that the standards will demand a shift in mindset. Alhambra is a pilot site for NCSC.

She explained: "We look at the standard now and work backward," she said, instead of looking at the child and trying to move him or her forward. For example, "we now are looking at algebra and asking, what piece of it can they do?"

Vol. 32, Issue 32, Pages 20,22

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Correction: 
The original version of the map associated with this story miscategorized Missouri, which is part of the DLM consortium, and Delaware, Maryland and Montana, which are members of NCSC. The map and article also reflect that after the newspaper’s print deadline, Illinois joined the DLM consortium and North Dakota left the NCSC group.

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