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New testing standards devised for severely mentally impaired students

Standardistos have come up with news tests as an alternative to FCAT for those students with IQs below 40. Where is the Monty Python crew when we need them?

By Marc Freeman

One FCAT milestone in recent years was when some of the exam scores of students with various disabilities began counting toward school letter grades.

Another significant testing hurdle involving the special needs population is coming in March. That's when schools will begin administering a new Florida Alternate Assessment for children in grades 3-11 with the most severe mental impairments.

About 22,000 students statewide who are exempt from taking the FCAT, including about 1,600 students in Palm Beach County, will take the special assessments in one-on-one settings with a teacher. These are students typically with an IQ less than 40.

It's a major step for a plan to hold all public schools accountable for the first time on how those disabled students perform in reading, math, writing and science, albeit at a reduced complexity.

Scores from this special assessment ΓΆ€” designed for children classified by the state as profoundly mentally handicapped, among other disabilities ΓΆ€” will likely count toward school grades in the 2009-10 school year.

"You should measure progress," said Russ Feldman, executive director of Exceptional Student Education for the Palm Beach County School District. "This assessment attempts to measure proficiency for this group of students."

About 12,340 county students with disabilities took the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test last year with special accommodations, such as extra time, he said. Since 2005 under the school grading system, schools have been held accountable for the learning gains these students make from year to year in math and reading.

But federal authorities forced Florida education officials to develop the new alternate assessment this year for the students deemed unable to take the FCAT under any circumstance.

The U.S. Department of Education determined that the state's old measure was not sufficient for assessing students with severe cognitive disabilities at the lowest level of test taking, called participatory.

Participatory means that the student answers a question by gazing or pointing in the direction of a picture card, and the teacher records the answer. For example, a teacher holds up a picture of an American flag. Next, the teacher holds up picture cards of a tree, a star and a dog and asks the students to indicate which one is in the upper left corner of the flag.

State officials say the new assessment ensures that the performance of all students with disabilities will be included in whether a school meets the standard of Adequate Yearly Progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. If any students are left out of the assessment, schools face penalties.

A school fails to make Adequate Yearly Progress if any one of eight demographic groups misses target levels on the FCAT and state assessments: whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, American Indians, those with limited English skills, disabled and economically disadvantaged.

Whereas the old state alternate assessment was actually an assortment of different tests used by school districts, the new assessment is better because it's uniform for all students who take it: "The same yardstick," said Karen Denbroeder, senior educational program director for the state Bureau of Exceptional Education and Student Services.

A recent guide for school districts called the new assessment "critical as educators seek to provide access to the general education curriculum and foster higher expectations for the wide diversity of students with significant cognitive disabilities."

Between Oct. 29 and Nov. 9, 434 Palm Beach County students took a practice version of the new alternate assessment, which was created by a national, New Hampshire-based company called Measured Progress. Teachers reported that the process took longer than the previous version, and it also took longer for teachers to prepare the exam for each student, Feldman said.

Sue Davis-Killian, president of the Gold Coast Down Syndrome Organization, said she and other parents welcome an alternative to the FCAT because it's a way to measure their child's skills. They hope that the new assessment becomes useful.

"It's a very good idea ΓΆ€” what's not tested isn't worked on," she said. "It's good to have progress tracked from year to year."

— Marc Freeman
South Florida Sun Sentinel


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