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Trying Times for Special Ed: Many Hours Are Spent On Md. Test Preparation For Severely Disabled

Ohanian Comment: Is it a bigotry of low expectations to insist that a battery of 20 academic tasks should not be inflicted on Shykell? When a parent agrees that the goal should be for a child to learn to feed himself, then why must he be tested on 10 math skills and 10 reading skills?

Shykell Pinkney is in the seventh grade, but her developmental age is three months. Her teacher communicates with Shykell the only way possible, by holding two or three symbols in front of her face and watching to see whether her head turns to focus on one of them.

Shykell has Rett syndrome, a neurological disorder. She cannot write, point or speak. But her teacher, Paula Gentile, had to spend nearly 30 hours testing her on a battery of academic tasks -- 10 in reading, 10 in math -- to measure her academic performance under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

So Gentile and her colleagues at Ruth Parker Eason School in Anne Arundel County found some tasks Shykell might be able to complete. With sufficient help, she could distinguish between the sounds made by the letters P and M and recognize the title of a picture book when a recording of it was played for her. Gentile and her colleagues went through the tasks one by one and watched Shykell for any hint of a response.

"Half the time you were trying to get information, this poor little girl would be falling asleep," Gentile said.

Some Maryland students are judged too mentally disabled to take the Maryland School Assessment, the statewide exam designed to measure the performance of students and schools under No Child Left Behind. Federal law allows 1 percent of students to take the Alternate Maryland School Assessment, or Alt-MSA, an individualized test designed to assess students at their own instructional levels rather than at grade level. Statewide, 5,862 students in grades three through eight and grades 10 and 11 took the alternative exam last year.

Special education teachers across Maryland say the test is a waste of time.

Teachers routinely spend 40, 80 or 100 work hours over several months to complete the test, whose counterpart, the regular MSA, takes six hours in a single week. In their view, the students with the smallest stake in No Child Left Behind spend the most time meeting its requirements.

Teachers also object to the content of the Alt-MSA, which is based on a statewide curriculum written for students who are learning reading and math. Many children who take the Alt-MSA will never read, write or compute, and a good number will never speak. They typically spend the school day learning life skills: how to communicate with their eyes or their hands, how to feed themselves and how to make change, tell time or function in a menial job. Teachers say their goals and the goals of the Alt-MSA are, in many cases, utterly divergent.

"I never have a parent ask me for 10 reading goals," said Gerry Reed, a special education teacher at Germantown Elementary School in Montgomery County. "They want their children feeding themselves and toilet-trained and to have job skills. And I don't see this test getting them there."

Felicia Smith-Walker, the mother of a 13-year-old student at Eason School in Millersville, said she believes the test distracts teachers from more important business.

"They're talking about reading and all this stuff, and we can't even get our kids to feed themselves and to sit up properly. It's irrelevant," she said.

Of the 73 students graded on the Alt-MSA reading test last year at Eason School, 16 were rated proficient, five were advanced and the rest were rated basic, the lowest of three performance levels.

One of the students who was rated proficient, 11th-grader Tosha Riley, is blind, cannot speak, feed herself or go to the bathroom independently, and she cannot move her limbs without help.

Students such as Tosha completed the test with extensive help from teachers, who, when necessary, are permitted to move students' hands to the correct answer. Teachers said they felt reduced to puppeteers.

"So what does all this prove?" asked Carol Petrosky, a teacher at Eason School.
Reducing the Workload

Administrators of the test at the Maryland State Department of Education have met with teachers, heard their complaints and are working on ways to reduce the workload. They expect the test to get easier over time as teachers learn the format and build a repertoire of standard test questions for their students.

But excluding severely disabled children from the statewide test "simply isn't an option," said Carol Ann Baglin, an assistant state superintendent who oversees special education.

Federal law permits states to create an alternative test for students with the most severe disabilities. Virginia, for example, has an Alternate Assessment Program for students who cannot take the Standards of Learning exam.

In the District, the most disabled students take the District of Columbia Alternate Assessment. Officials from both jurisdictions said they had not heard of widespread teacher complaints.

Students with disabilities in Maryland have taken statewide tests since the early 1990s, part of a federal effort to hold the special education community responsible for academic results. A more ambitious generation of tests followed No Child Left Behind, which set a goal that nearly every student, including those in special education, show proficiency at grade-level reading and math by 2014.

Some states, especially Massachusetts, have demonstrated that academic progress is possible even with severely disabled students, said Rachel Quenemoen, senior research fellow at the National Center on Educational Outcomes at the University of Minnesota. But special education teachers everywhere have struggled with the new tests.

"Every state that has asked their teachers to change their practice for this group of children has had a backlash," said Quenemoen, whose federally funded center helps states include special education students in statewide assessments.

U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings showed flexibility in announcing this month that an additional 2 percent of students nationwide -- beyond the 1 percent who take alternative assessments -- will be permitted to take modified exams, recognizing that they probably will never perform at grade level.

For students who take the Alt-MSA, there is no expectation of grade-level work. This year's academic objectives and last year's may be essentially the same.

Testing and Retesting

At Germantown Elementary, Reed and two adult para-educators teach a class of five children ages 6 to 10. One of the five was toilet-trained at the start of the school year. Now three can use the toilet unaided. Three students can eat without assistance, and two have some capacity of speech.

"Who wants a turn to see what's behind the egg?" Ann Marie Schmaltz, a speech pathologist, asked on a recent morning. She held up a pop-up book called "Easter Eggs."

Rather than speak, most students replied by punching a button to activate a recording preset with an adult voice that said, "I want to see the egg, please."

The point of the exercise was to help the students identify basic symbols and colors. After 10 minutes, the class had not progressed past the second page.

Reed gave the Alt-MSA to three of her students this year. She said she spent at least an hour a day on the test from October to March, when the completed exams were delivered to the state Education Department. At the end, she spent two entire school days assembling binders for each student documenting their mastery of the 20 reading and math objectives, including videotaped snippets of every child taking the test.

Reed had to test and retest the students on every objective as many times as it took for them to achieve 80 percent success, the standard required for mastery on the test.

One of her more advanced students, Mark Phillip Shadwick, 8, is severely autistic.

Among the reading objectives Reed used in his test was to see whether he could identify a symbol among three flashcards picturing such icons as a library, a McDonald's restaurant and a post office. Reed tested Mark Phillip on the objective 11 times over several weeks before he could pick the correct symbol 80 percent of the time. On Feb. 15, on the 12th attempt, he achieved mastery.

"One day they would have it, one day they wouldn't," Reed recalled. "When they reach 80 percent, I stop teaching it, knowing that tomorrow they may forget how to do it."

— Daniel de Vise
Washington Post


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