Teacher Evaluation, Should SPED Teachers be Held to a Different Standard?

by Neva Fenno, M.S.Ed. MLIS

Last time we talked about summative assessment, the cumulative, usually annual, measures of student achievement. The annual part of the bargain seems to be changing, there may now be semi-annual online exams in some states, but the focus of this blog has been student evaluation over the past few weeks.

A larger issue, still evolving at the state and district levels, is teacher evaluation. The climate of paranoia over how we will all be evaluated as teachers has risen to a fever pitch. The main scary point has been the drive by education reformers to tie teacher evaluations to student achievement test scores. We all know the picture has only started to become clear for the assessment of special education teachers and students. Some of the biggest questions like “how can we hold special education students to the same standards as ‘regular'” kids are being asked and debated nationally.

We have learned to write specific IEP’s to try to use existing laws to our advantage while protecting our students from unreasonable testing requirements. We are actively aligning our curricula to Common Core State Standards and hope the process will be informative.

But what about the teachers? If we haven’t really ironed out student evaluation issues for special education, how are we going to fairly evaluate teachers? We all want to know how we are doing as we are compared to our peers in SPED classrooms.

The Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) has written some guiding essays to help us understand these complex questions. CEC’s ESEA (NCLB) Reauthorization Recommendations document has been crafted over the past 4-5 years by committees and focus groups entrusted with the task of sorting it all out. It does an excellent job of reminding us that it is possible to reconcile the missions of ESEA and IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). CEC believes that blending the strengths of both IDEA and ESEA will result in policies that directly address the challenges confronting the education community. They stress everyone’s desire to create and nurture a highly qualified teaching staff to manage increasingly complex student needs.

What about our teachers? How can we measure their effectiveness in the classroom? Teaching is part science mixed with a big dash of art. The older I get, and the more truly gifted teachers I observe, the more the art part comes into focus. You know a good teacher when you see one; you feel it in the electricity in the classroom and the bright eyes of the students. Really great teachers manage their classrooms brilliantly and effortlessly to manage challenging behaviors so learning can occur uninterrupted. With a flick of a wrist and a raised index finger, you can watch 25 students suddenly shush and sit up straight with hands folded on the desks (how the heck did she do that?) It’s all about expectations, and consistent messaging from day one of each school year. The children eat it up, and prefer an organized classroom to “creative chaos.”

To address questions being asked by educators the CEC drafted “CEC Position Statement on Special Education Teacher Evaluation” I urge you to read it thoroughly because it is a sensitive approach to all teacher evaluation.

They took another step and crafted “CEC’s Special Education Teacher Evaluation Toolkit“. It helps us understand some of the more practical aspects of the process. Basically their message is that all teachers must participate in the planning process for implementing teacher evaluation systems. All evaluation systems must occur as a system, over time, with scheduled monitoring and a diverse collection of tools, not relying on any one measure to judge the merit of a teacher’s efforts.

Other discussions to get you started on the road to understanding directions we will all take in the years to come:

Huffington Post article

ERIC National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality”

“Gotham Schools.org”

“Education Week Blog”

Don’t be silent, comment on this blog, what do you think, how will your district approach evaluations for special education teachers?


Grant Name:  Foundation Grant

Funded By:  Patterson Foundation

Description: The foundation provides resources to programs and to nonprofit organizations in the areas of oral health, animal health, and occupational and physical rehabilitation. Funds are granted for: Health and Human Services programs related to the focus areas that benefit economically disadvantaged people or youth with special needs; and education as it relates to the focus areas, especially programs that increase the number of underrepresented people in the dental, veterinary, occupational health and physical health fields.

Program Areas:   At-Risk/Character, Community Involvement/Volunteerism, Disabilities, Early Childhood, Family Services, General Education, Health/PE

Eligibility:  Public School, Private School, Higher Education, Other

Proposal Deadline:  Ongoing

Annual Total Amount: $500,000.00 – $800,000.00

Average Amount:  $5,000.00 – $75,000.00

Telephone:  651-686-1929

E-mail: information@pattersonfoundation.net

Website:  Patterson Foundation

Availability:  All States

Summative Assessment, an Unfair Imposition on Special Ed Kids?

by Neva Fenno, M.S.Ed. MLIS

Last time we talked about formative assessment, the daily measures of student
understanding we all use to stay on track. But what about summative assessment,
the (usually) annual state academic achievement tests imposed on all students?
The annual part of the bargain seems to be changing, there may now be
semi-annual online exams in some states. We can only hope school districts are
up to speed with their computer networks. There are alternative ways for
students to take exams if computers are outmoded but it’s just one more thing
for teachers to worry about.

question mark

In general, are the accommodations we write into our students’ IEPs sufficient in providing fair assessment to measure how we are progressing with students with disabilities? When IEPs are written in the fall, do we know enough about our students to include the right assists for exams being administered in the spring? Fairness for our kids is a complex and thorny issue. Lynn and Douglas Fuchs have written a thoughtful article on the subject of fair and unfair accommodations for testing.

In Massachusetts, there is an MCAS-Alt exam.

“MCAS is designed to measure a student’s knowledge of key concepts and skills outlined in the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks. A small number of students with the most significant disabilities who are unable to take the standard MCAS tests even with accommodations participate in the MCAS Alternate Assessment (MCAS-Alt). MCAS-Alt consists of a portfolio of specific materials collected annually by the teacher and student. Evidence for the portfolio may include work samples, instructional data, videotapes, and other supporting information.” Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, 10/18/2013.

All states have devised similar systems for assessing our kids each year. Many resources have been devoted to solving system challenges and as far as it goes the alternative assessments provide useful information. But, shouldn’t there be a point at which severely disabled students are released from having to take these exams, a “test-free zone”?  How and where do you draw the line? Many minds sharper than mine have struggled with these questions for many years.

Resources for portfolio assessment.  ~  Authentic Assessment

This is not all academic; teachers should be involved in the politics of measuring student achievement. It’s fair to say that you, the classroom practitioner, should be involved at the highest levels in making decisions about who should be tested.

A school district (or teacher) could write and apply for a grant to bring in staff development specialists to assist a school assessment committee. It all becomes more complicated as we migrate to new Common Core State Standards. How do we align our curricula in resource rooms and substantially separate classrooms? We’ve got work to do. You can search for grants that are available to schools for this purpose at the Grants Database.

In a blog like this, I have the luxury of just tossing the questions out there. It’s up to governments and state leaders to come up with the answers. Get involved though, start with your own building, pull together some teachers with similar questions, do some research on who provides quality staff development in assessment and come up with ways to bring these folks to your school. Develop a grant funded long range plan to work through your district policies on assessment for special ed kids.

Stay abreast of the issues and become part of the solution in solving the thornier issues you find.

Comment on this blog, what do you think, how does your district approach testing for students with disabilities?

Grant Name: Foundation Grants

Funded By:  Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation

Description:  Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation (MEAF) supports innovative projects that help youth with disabilities develop the leadership and employment skills they need to succeed, particularly for careers in science, technology and the environment. MEAF will also consider projects to create tools that help break down barriers to employment and increase job opportunities for young people with disabilities entering the workforce, including returning veterans with disabilities.

Program Areas:   Disabilities, General Education, Professional Development, Science/Environmental, Special Education, Technology, Vocational

Eligibility:  Public School, Private School, Higher Education, Other

Proposal Deadline:  6/1/2014

Annual Total Amount: $400,000.00

Average Amount:  $1,000.00 – $10,000.00

Telephone:  703-276-8240

Website:  Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation

Availability:  All States

Formative Assessment: Getting to Know Your Kids

by Neva Fenno, M.S.Ed. MLIS

Quick as a bunny, it’s not a new school year any more. The older I get it seems time accelerates at an increased rate, faster and sooner we get where we’re going.

kids testing

The subject for today is “Ok, where are we going?” In special education, we are compelled to assess everything in sight; our progress, our failures, our kids, our methods, the very degree to which we are succeeding as teachers. This last, teacher evaluation, is a subject that will gain special significance as we continue to embrace Common Core State Standards and new teacher evaluation systems. I will dedicate a post to it later this year and I’m collecting stories from teachers who are being evaluated using new systems (please let me know how you’re doing out there.)

As assessment becomes more remote, more attached to complex statistical models and driven by new technologies, we’ve forgotten how to do simple classroom assessments, which are now called formative assessments. We have binders on our desks with fancy printouts from our state departments of education with our numbers. These reports drill right down to your classroom if you massage it all the right way.

bubble test

Today, I want to share a couple of quick assessments you can do in your classroom that will give you more actionable information to help your students right now, like the San Diego Quick Reading Inventory. I’ve evaluated a few sites that provide descriptions of quick reading assessments and I share one from the home schooling community with you. Ann Zeiss gives us a look at several quick ways to determine a reading level for your students.

This is important because you can go through all the data in your binders, but a hands-on tool will be so much more useful for simple tasks like taking your class to the library (you do use your library media center, right?). If you know your students’ grade level for reading you and your library media specialist can guide them to the best books to help build on that level and improve their reading skills, perhaps help them learn to love reading and become lifelong learners. It only takes a few minutes to assess the kids right in your classroom. Because you have done this yourself, it stays in your mind. We also know we have many different reading levels in our little group, your LMS can help you with this as well.

In special education, we are inundated by acronyms: ADHD, ADA, BD, CP, DD, DB. Educational jargon and acronyms are invented to make us look smart when we speak. If you know the lingo, you must be an expert. I think it all just serves to remove us from important dialogues we could be having to look at kids in a more holistic “ability” way.

In your binders, you have one of those acronyms for each one of your students. Don’t let those designations pigeon-hole your kids and close your mind to the possibilities ahead for each one of your students. Quick reading assessments and math grade level quizzes, administered even-handedly to all students regardless of their acronym will make them seem more alike than different, and isn’t that what we want to do anyway?

For quick ways to determine grade level in math and reading, find old academic achievement test questions. Almost all states (Ohio here) have released tests that were given in the last 2-5 years. Pull out the standards and assess students in groups of standards in math (number sense, geometry, algebra, etc.). This helps you know the skills you will need to concentrate on for each child. Clusters of mistakes in any given standard should be a red flag and a beacon for finding appropriate math materials to remediate the gaps.

I’m not suggesting that you throw out all those fancy charts; they are important and you need to assimilate their contents so you can prepare for your own teacher evaluation. Most new teacher evaluation systems include evaluations of your classroom assessment protocols (talk about circular logic), not just the achievement information. But, here you have a couple of quick ideas to bring you closer to your students and really know where their capabilities reside.

This is the “data based decision making” conversation that has been going on for the last few years with NCLB as the back seat driver. It’s all good. The more you know about your kids, the more able you are to bring them to success.

Tell us what you’re doing in your classroom to find out more about kids, your formative, and summative assessment tools. Tell us your stories about teacher evaluation too.


Grant Name:  IWP Foundation Educational Grants

Funded By:  Innovating Worthy Projects Foundation

Description:  Giving on a national basis. The Foundation makes grants to organizations dedicated to serving developing innovative programs, disseminating ideas, or providing direct care or services for children with special needs, acute illnesses or chronic disabilities.

Program Areas:   Disabilities, Early Childhood, Special Education

Eligibility:  Public School, Private School, Other

Proposal Deadline:  12/31/2013

Total Amount: $100,000.00 – $200,000.00

Average Amount:  $1,000.00 – $10,000.00

Address: 4045 Sheridan Avenue, Suite 296, Miami Beach, FL 33140

Telephone:  305-861-5352

E-mail: info@iwpf.org

Website:  http://www.iwpf.org/

Availability:  All States