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NCLB Outrages

Special Ed Testing a Trial for Teachers

Ohanian Comment:The description of the portfolios and how (and by whom) they are assessed is provocative--and maddening. I would disagree with the reporter's assertion that all teachers think special education students should participate in standardized assessment.

Special education student Cara Murphy of Blue Island utters only a handful of words and her fingers can't grasp a pencil, but federal law says she must be tested in reading and math along with the rest of the state's 3rd graders.

In Illinois, that means her teacher spends as much as 20 to 40 hours choosing and compiling a portfolio of her work to be scored by a test contractor. The process, called the Illinois Alternate Assessment, is used for about 7,700 special education children with the most severe disabilities.

There is no love lost between many teachers and the push for more standardized tests. But rarely has a required assessment attracted such ire from educators, who say the IAA is too subjective to be an accurate measure of students' ability, takes up valuable teaching time and does nothing to improve student instruction.

Although scores on the test jumped significantly last year in all subjects except 8th-grade math, critics say the increase shows only that teachers are becoming more nimble at assembling the complicated portfolios. One teacher realized one of her students got a low score because the teacher had failed to date a work sample.

"I truly feel that portfolios are scored on the teacher's ability to compile and organize the material and may not, in many cases, accurately assess actual student ability or progress," wrote South Cook County special education teacher Jodi Stevenson in a letter to state officials.

Everyone agrees that all children should be tested so none is overlooked. But unearthing what goes on in the minds of severely disabled students is no easy task, and proving progress to the government with a uniform reporting system is even more difficult.

With scoring of the portfolios under way, the controversy over the test highlights the dilemma facing school districts across the nation as they struggle to find the best way to evaluate students like Cara.

In Illinois, most special education students take the same standardized tests in the spring as their regular education peers. But some have so many or such severe disabilities that it would be pointless to make them take the one-size-fits-all exams used to judge school performance under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Cara almost drowned as a toddler and suffers from multiple disabilities that have delayed her development. One of the biggest challenges is finding a way for her to communicate what she knows, since she cannot speak, write or use her hands well.

The 9-year-old is a student in the Developmental Learning Program in the Eisenhower Cooperative, which serves students from nine south Cook County elementary districts.

On a recent morning, a rubber band and splint provided the keys to Cara's thoughts. Her teacher, Peggy Earll, used the materials to attach a thick green marker to the girl's uncooperative finger.

"Cara knows her numbers from 1 to 20, but a goal is to learn 21 to 30," Earll explained as she positioned a sheet of paper with several rows of the numerals 21 to 25 on a tray across Cara's wheelchair.

"Point to 23," Earll instructed as Cara's hand stabbed the air above the paper before it made a rough landing on the answer. "Point to 21," she continued. "Excellent job, Cara."

Cara's marks would become part of her IAA portfolio as some of the evidence needed to prove she can recognize numerals, a skill linked to the same math standard required of other 3rd graders.

According to last year's test results, students like Cara are making striking improvements. In the most dramatic example, the percentage of 3rd graders who were showing at least moderate progress in reading rose by 14 percentage points from 44.7 of those tested in 2002 to 59 percent in 2003.

But teachers question if such gains are real--or if teachers have just learned to meet the complex technical requirements of scoring, such as including photos that show students performing similar skills in different settings.

They also say that assembling the portfolios, which includes printing photographs and constructing numerous progress graphs, can cut into teaching time. Some school districts even hire substitutes so their special education teachers can have entire days to put together the thick black notebooks.

Such complaints are familiar to Chris Koch, director of special education for the Illinois State Board of Education.

"Yes, I hear that all the time," Koch said. "Teachers say it is more an assessment of `us' and not of their students. We are trying to develop something that will be more meaningful and less labor intensive."

Koch and other state officials are looking to teachers to help them build a better system. Stevenson, who wrote the critical letter to the state, landed on a working group co-chaired by Koch that has been laboring since December on an overhaul of the alternate assessment.

Parents and other advocates for the disabled argue that even imperfect test systems push teachers to demand more progress from their special needs students. They cite statistics from New York and Massachusetts that show the drive for accountability has dramatically increased the number of special education students who take and pass the states' regular high school graduation exams.

"Expectations are a powerful thing. These children are surprising us with how much they can learn," said Rachel Quenemoen, a senior fellow at the National Center for Educational Outcomes at the University of Minnesota, the federally funded technical assistance center on alternate assessments.

The issue of testing severely disabled kids became more complicated with the recent passage of the No Child Left Behind law, which not only requires all children to be tested but also mandates that schools face consequences for the performance of student groups, such as minority and special education.

Although doomsayers had feared that including special education students in the mix would drastically drive up the number of "failing" schools, that didn't happen in Illinois last year. Just 101 of the state's some 4,000 schools did not meet standards solely because of their special education students.

Of the 82,419 special education students tested in grades 3, 5, 8 and 11 last year, about 9 percent took the alternate assessment instead of the regular tests. Even in that smaller group, students can differ widely in abilities, making it hard to find ways to link their classroom work to the standards required of their grade-level peers, teachers said.

In one instance, special education students with severe cognitive delays visited a star lab, an inflatable dome that allows youngsters to view the night sky as a science activity. Some students might only be able to distinguish between the words "dog" and "star" if they have pictures to aid them; others might read simple sentences about stars.

In both cases, portfolio work must be produced that will show whether the children are meeting a state science standard that calls for them to "understand the fundamental concepts, principles and interconnections of the life, physical and earth/space sciences."

"For some students it is a bit of a stretch," said Sue Ireland, executive director of the Eisenhower Cooperative and facilitator of the state group making recommendations on a new alternate assessment system.

Ireland and others said they expected the recommendations may include making it possible to complete part of the assessment by computer to speed the process.

In addition, federal regulations published in December are expected to allow states to develop what are called "alternate learning standards" for youngsters with the most serious cognitive disabilities. That means they can differ from the expectations of regular education students in the same grades.

Parents don't want the new standards to abandon academic goals, but they say they also would like to see more emphasis on social and survival skills, such as the ability to dress or eat without assistance.

Like many parents, Rosemary Murphy, Cara's mother, says she hasn't really noticed her daughter's scores on the IAA. Parents never see the actual portfolios, which are no longer returned to schools after being scored by outside teachers supervised by the test contractor, Measured Progress of New Hampshire.

"I am lucky enough to be in a system that is doing a good job. I see the progress Cara has made over the years," Murphy said. "We didn't need the federal government to come in and tell us what to do to get that. I could see that this would be more helpful for parents in schools that aren't doing a good job."

Despite the problems, educators agree that even the most severely disabled students must remain in the testing system.

"The assessment needs to be more user friendly and less burdensome," said Jim Shriner, an associate professor in special education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who serves on the state working group. "But to not include them would be to devalue these students."

— Lori Olszewski
Chicago Tribune


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