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Special Education: What to Teach, How to Test

Ohanian Comment: Look what is done in the name of data colletion for NCLB. This is an extreme case but the truth of the matter is that 99.7% of the data collected from standardized tests is worthless. But it's worse than worthless because it takes lots of time away from helping children learn what they need to learn, what they can learn.

Professional acquiescence to the corporate-pollitico data masters puts all teachers in (unacknowledged) professional crisis. This is just more obvious when we look at what teachers of children with severe cognitive disabilities are told to do.

If our unions and our professional organizations had any integrity they would declare that to participate in child abuse mandated by the State is malpractice. These organizations can take a first step on the road to redemption by supporting these two Washington teachers in their complaint with the U.S. Office of Civil Rights, under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

As you read of the testing outrage described below, know that it is done in the name of high standards:

Under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and the Individuals with Disabilities Educational Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA), states have a federal obligation to ensure that all students, including students with the most significant disabilities, have access to a curriculum that encompasses challenging academic standards. Additionally, each state is required to have assessments that address the unique needs of students with disabilities. The WAAS-Portfolio has been fully approved by the US Department of Education as part of Washington's student assessment system.
-- http://www.k12.wa.us/Assessment/pubdocs/PortfolioBrochure.pdf

People who care about this issue--and everyone should--can support the work of the Washington advocacy group Parent Empowerment Network in their efforts to help these teachers and students.

I am not going to publicize information about the two teachers involved but if you want to write them notes of support, contact me:

If this interview does not convince you that we must stop philosophizing about our pedagogical dreams and instead spend our energies organizing for action against the corporate power that is destroying public education, then I advise you to just stay home and eat bon bons. Nothing on this site will be of any importance to you.

by Phyllis Fletcher, KUOW News

Two special education teachers in Seattle were suspended without pay this month. The teachers refused to give their students a federally mandated test. It's called the WAAS Portfolio. It's an alternative to the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, or WASL. It's for students with the most severe cognitive disabilities. Washington State has struggled to come up with the best way to test these kids. Some parents and teachers have decided the whole thing is a waste of time.

Rachel McKean is one of those parents.

Her son Jackson likes to play with the Venetian blinds in their apartment. He wants his mom to give him the string.

Jackson: "That."

McKean: "He learned, actually, how to point to something that he wants, and say 'that.'"

He learned it from his teachers at Greenlake Elementary.

McKean: "He learned how to feed himself at school. With a spoon. And he learned how to drink out of a cup. He learned how to push his own wheelchair. His head control has gotten extremely better, because his head is a little bit bigger than an average sized kid."

Jackson has a form of hydrocephalus. It's a neurological disorder that has caused some severe developmental disabilities. Jackson also has intestinal problems. He has to wear a diaper.

Jackson can turn pages in a book. He can say "yes" and "no," and in sign language he can say about eight things. He's still learning. But his mom doesn't expect reading and math to be part of his education.

So she was annoyed to learn that last year, Jackson had to take a standardized reading and math test. He was in fourth grade.

McKean: "They would hold up two cards. One of them was a half, and one of them was, like, three fourths. And the question was, 'OK, which one's bigger?' OK, he doesn't...he doesn't know. And it really doesn't measure his intelligence at all, because the only person you can really compare him to is himself."

Rachel says Jackson's score was zero.

The test was developed by the State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, or OSPI. It was rushed to meet the Federal testing requirement テャテつッテモテつソテモテつス" which the state hadn't enforced for 5 years.

Some teachers agree with Jackson's mom-- that it was a complete waste of time. And that it was educationally inappropriate for kids with the most serious cognitive disabilities.

The state heard those complaints. And criticism from the Federal government that the test still wasn't quite right. So the state made some changes.

This fall, OSPI offered training on the test.

Seattle Public Schools videotaped one of the sessions.

In the video, Lori Pollett from OSPI picks a teacher in the front row for some role play. She calls her "Elizabeth."

Lori describes what OSPI calls a "prompt." A way to get a student to do something. In this case, the task is to touch a flashlight. Lori pretends her own left hand is the flashlight.

Pollett: "So, I'll say, 'Elizabeth, touch the flashlight.' She doesn't do anything, so I start with verbal."

Lori works her way up through different levels of prompts. Verbal. Partial physical. And, ultimately, the physical prompt.

Lori takes Elizabeth's hand in her own, and places it on the pretend flashlight.

Pollett: "She's touched the flashlight, but you know what? That's not really even intentional. But what it's doing is it's giving 'em access to-- to offering...some opportunity. In this case, to take the WAAS Portfolio."

That's what OSPI is asking special ed teachers to do. Put the kid's hand on the right answer.

This is training Jackson's teacher was supposed to get. She didn't go. The Seattle School District called it a "refusal." It's one of the reasons she was suspended.

Judy Kraft is in charge of special ed testing for the state. I asked her...

Fletcher: "It sounds like a teacher could put a student's hand on the correct answer, and then count that as correct in the WAAS. Is that right?"

Kraft: "We ask that at the lowest level they have one distracter."

A distracter is a wrong answer. Judy explained that a distracter forces a choice between the wrong answer and the right one.

Fletcher: "So with the distracter there, and the correct answer, the teacher would go through a process that might end in the teacher putting the student's hand on the right answer, and then scoring that as correct."

Kraft: "It might, it might. Again...I think teachers are doing the very best they can to gather the data on the learning of the student."

Judy goes on to explain that teachers gather that data three times a school year in the WAAS Portfolio. So the idea is that maybe, over time, the student would come to the right answer on his own.

Judy admits that won't happen for some kids. Maybe a lot of kids.

Jackson's mom Rachel says a test like the WAAS Portfolio takes away from time Jackson's teachers spend on life skills. Like going to the bathroom. Or how to stay calm when a loud truck goes down the street.

Judy Kraft says she understands, but teachers have to give this test. Because it's a federal requirement to test students on academic concepts at their grade level.

Parents like Rachel say grade level doesn't apply to her son and his abilities. Judy Kraft questions that idea. She says people have made assumptions about what kids can and can't do in special education.

Fletcher: "What about a mom like Rachel who doesn't feel like what she's doing is making assumptions? She feels like she knows her child."

Kraft: "I absolutely...trust the mom's intuition. I mean, she knows her child best...maybe we have set some artificial ceilings for this population of kids...there have been immense changes in how we believe in their ability to learn and grow...I would say that we have a lot of work to do in this assessment to help make those connections for parents and it would be my job to have that happen."

Judy has written a brochure on the WAAS to explain its value to parents. [ Here is Teachers Guide to WAAS Portfolio by Kraft.]

Rachel doesn't see the value in it. This year, she refused to let Jackson take the WAAS.

McKean: "I mean, it's not like a one-day test. I mean, it's basically from December to March, they have to constantly do stuff for this test that my son's gonna get a zero on. He's not learning anything. And I know for a fact if my teacher thought for one second that he would get anything out of this experience, she would do it."

All the parents in Jackson's class refused the test.

Judy Kraft says that's their right. But in large numbers, those refusals would cause problems. Federal regulations say 95% of disabled kids have to take tests like the WAAS and the WASL. When districts and schools don't hit that number, their federal funding is jeopardized.

Jackson's teacher and her colleague have appealed their suspension. They're back in the classroom for now. Jackson's teacher didn't return a call for comment. Her colleague says their lawyer told them not to talk to reporters. Their spokesperson says they're filing a complaint with the U.S. Office of Civil Rights, under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

— Phyllis Fletcher




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