Special Education

Tests Balance Common Core, Those With Cognitive Issues

By Christina A. Samuels — April 15, 2014 6 min read
Special education teacher Greta Smith works with a student during class at Buhler Grade School in Buhler, Kan. Students at the school are among those field-testing assessments aligned with the Common Core State Standards and designed for those with cognitive disabilities.
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While the attention of most educators is focused on the millions of students trying out the general assessments based on the Common Core State Standards, a smaller, but no less momentous, set of field tests is underway for students with severe cognitive disabilities.

Dynamic Learning Maps and the National Center and State Collaborative are the federally funded consortia charged with creating alternate assessments tied to the common core. Forty-two states and regions have signed on to one of the alternate assessment groups, including two states—Alaska and Virginia—which have declined to join the common-core movement for students in the general population.

The field testing started in February for Dynamic Learning Maps and continues through May for both groups. In contrast to the 4 million students estimated to be taking the general common-core assessments, the participants in these alternate field tests will number in the thousands. But their cognitive ability range is enormous: While some of the students can read with some level of critical understanding, others may be working on responding consistently to “yes” or “no” questions. Yet almost all of them are expected to be measured on standards that have a foundation in grade-level academic work.

New Philosophy

With such a varied group, the test developers say they are looking for a range of information during this tryout period. For example, can these alternate tests appropriately place students on a continuum so that the questions they get are challenging, but not completely outside the realm of mastery? How long does it take to answer a question? Do teachers, who must be closely engaged in administering the tests understand what they are being asked to do? Do the tests engage students long enough that they can complete the tasks?

“We think we’ve done what preparation we could anticipate,” said Rachel Quenemoen, the project director for NCSC, which is based at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. “But we think we have a lot to learn.”

Greta Smith reads to her special education class at Buhler Grade School in Buhler, Kan. Ms. Smith works with a range of technologies available to her students. The school is field-testing assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards and designed for students with severe cognitive disabilities.

Neal Kingston, who directs Dynamic Learning Maps, which is based at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, said that the content of the assessment is not the only piece being evaluated during the field tests: The computer software that brings the test to the students and teachers also will be under scrutiny.

“Is it truly accessible? Is it laid out in an understandable fashion?” Mr. Kingston said. “There’s lots of accessibility issues. Sometimes we’re really sure what we’re looking for, and sometimes we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

The alternate assessments mark a continuation of a perspective on students with disabilities that traces its roots back to the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 1997. At that time, Congress mandated that students with disabilities should have access to the general curriculum and be included in statewide testing. Before then—and to this day, for many students in this population—explicit academic instruction took a back seat to instruction in social skills.

After the 2004 reauthorization of the special education law, the U.S. Department of Education said that up to 1 percent of students, or about 10 percent of all students with disabilities, could be tested on “alternate assessments tied to alternate achievement standards” and be counted as proficient under the No Child Left Behind Act. There is no firm definition for which students might fall into this category, but they are generally students believed to be unable to take the general assessment because of their cognitive disabilities, even with supports.

The work on the common-core-aligned alternate assessments is “a good thing for kids with significant disabilities. There’s new learning going on, and new appreciation that kids with severe disabilities are doing more academics than we thought,” said Stephen N. Elliot, an education professor at Arizona State University, in Tempe. He is also a co-principal director of the National Center on Assessment and Accountability for Special Education, a research organization funded by the Education Department.

But, Mr. Elliott added, educators of students with severe disabilities are still trying to work out the right balance of teaching academic content to instruction in other skills these students may need, like how to navigate social situations.

“We’re having an overreaction from expecting too little in the past. Now, maybe, we expect too much,” he said. Mr. Elliott said he believes the best assessment might find a way to gauge a student’s learning in academics and in life skills.

Different Approaches

The federal government has invested $67 million in the two alternate assessment consortia. In contrast, $360 million has been granted to the general assessment groups, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.

Greta Smith reads to her special education class at Buhler Grade School in Buhler, Kan.

With those funds, both of the alternate assessment consortia have worked to break down the common core to its most basic elements. For example, where a standard may say that a student must be able to pick out the main idea of a text, an alternate standard could ask a student to distinguish between text and illustrations. The consortia also are also creating a detailed set of professional development modules, so that teachers can have concrete examples of how to match their instruction to common academic standards.

But the structures of the two groups’ tests are quite different. NCSC focuses on one end-of-year test, while Dynamic Learning Maps will allow educators to use aggregated results from a series of several “testlets” given over the course of a school year.

The tests under development by NCSC are just rolling out this week. Judy Snow, the director of statewide student assessment for Montana, a NCSC state, said teachers can expect a test quite different from the state’s current alternate assessments. The test will be computerized and promises to tie closely to classroom instruction in a way that the current test is not, she said.

“This is not just a test, it’s a system,” said Ms. Snow, who said 54 Montana students are currently slated to participate in the field tests. “The teachers like this idea.”

Response From Field

Dynamic Learning Maps started some of its field testing last month. Beth O’Brien and Greta Smith, two teachers in the 2,300-student Buhler district in Kansas, 50 miles northwest of Wichita, say they were amazed at the results they saw with their students, despite some initial misgivings.

“I have to say, I really wasn’t expecting it to be at a level where my students could show any achievement,” said Ms. O’Brien, who teaches eight high school students with cognitive disabilities, many of whom come to Buhler schools through a cooperative agreement with smaller surrounding districts.

But that was before she saw one 10th grade student powering through the test, answering questions that were based on a modified grade-level text. Seeing her student so excited about the test brought tears to Ms. O’Brien’s eyes, she said.

“She was able to feel successful and to not feel pressured over it,” Ms. O’Brien said. “Personally, I think this will set the tone for future activities in my classroom.”

Ms. Smith said her eight students, a classroom of 4th through 6th graders, were able to take the computerized test alongside their mainstream peers. “I’ve seen my kids in a different light. I’m not just in my mind grouping them all together any more.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 16, 2014 edition of Education Week as Specialized Tests Piloted For a Challenging Subset

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