Testing for Special Education Students

by Neva Fenno, M.S.Ed., MLIS

Last time, I talked about blended learning environments for special education classrooms. With this learning model, we might want to talk about testing for our special needs children; are there new technologies that help teachers work with Common Core State Standards (CCSS) at testing time?

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I remember in the late 90’s when we were starting to embrace learning standards and develop new high-stakes tests. We heard a loud shriek throughout the land from teachers and parents who were sure their special needs children were going to be relegated to academic Siberia and required to take the same tests as “regular” children. It was a justifiable shriek; it seemed no one had really thought about this thorny issue, at least not very thoroughly.

We’ve calmed down since then, and now realize that requiring special needs students to take and pass high-stakes tests is just the equivalent of raising standards and expectations for all students, and providing the least restrictive environment—which is always a good thing. We’ve developed accommodations for children who need extra support at test time.

According to the law1

Testing accommodations are neither intended nor permitted to:

  • alter the construct of the test being measured or invalidate the results
  • provide an unfair advantage for students with disabilities over students taking tests under standardized conditions
  • substitute for knowledge or abilities that the student has not attained

The testing accommodations most frequently required by students as indicated in their IEP’s are:

  • flexibility in scheduling/timing
  • flexibility in the setting used for the administration of assessments
  • changes in the method of presentation
  • changes in the method of response

The key here is “in the IEP.” We have found ways to include many accommodations for special needs children in their IEP’s. We have struggled to find methods of assistance that don’t alter the tests or invalidate the results.

The NCEO (National Center for Educational Outcomes) provides a helpful bibliography of research-tested accommodations for testing. They also provide a nice description of differences among accommodations and discussions on test validity and reliability. There is considerable variability among states for the development of accommodations. Over time, states have developed alternate assessments that align with alternate state standards. We have also struggled with providing support for ELL students who have special needs.

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Where does technology step in to help us out with all these delicate balancing acts? A practical discussion of different ways classrooms can manage accommodations can be found at http://drscavanaugh.org/assistive/technology_accommodations.htm.

Teachervision has been one of my favorite sites over the years. They apply teacher speak to most of the ideas they present, and this article on assistive technology for students with mild disabilities is an example of that. Adaptive technologies may or may not be carried over into the testing environment. Remember the IEP? It may be allowed in the IEP, but here are some resources to help you sort this out.

Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) provides some guidance on using adaptive technologies for testing. PARCC is a group of states working together to develop a set of assessments that measure whether students are on track to be successful in college and their careers.

But, I digress. There are as many organizations, companies and others who are interested in creating and providing testing materials and guidance as there are stars in the sky, and for obvious reasons. There is a great deal of money to be made. Rather than insert my opinions about this, I’ll provide you with some (hopefully) unbiased resources to help districts with assistive technology make decisions as they relate to testing.

Education Week

University of Texas at Austin (study)

Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium

Wikipedia on CAT

One Parent’s Opinion (NY Times)

Indiana University (Assistive Technology and Assessment Center)

Let me know how your district has evolved on the subject of testing and the use of assistive technologies.

1Text taken from: http://www.p12.nysed.gov/specialed/publications/policy/testaccess/guidance.htm, New York State Education Department.


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Testing for Special Education Students Part 2: Aligning to Common Core State Standards

ABC learningby Neva Fenno, M.S.Ed., MLIS

Last time, I talked about testing accommodations for special needs students and new technologies that can assist at test time. Once IEP accommodations are devised, teachers are wondering how to align lessons and classroom tests to CCSS (Common Core State Standards)? Now that most states have adopted common standards, and we’ve gotten over the shock of needing to line up and adopt them at the micro level, how do we do that? Check out the CCSSI site itself for a look at alignment for students with disabilities.

Despite initial emotional resistance to moving to the new standards, I’ve been able to see that CCSS can actually be a useful tool as we create new lessons for special needs kids. Blended learning environments are available if we plan for them, and they offer additional technology assists for our lesson planning processes. One obstacle seems to be the availability of teacher training to bring technology to life.

This acceptance did not happen overnight, but I didn’t need a twelve-step program to come to acceptance level after all. We all want high standards for all children, they need something to aim for, and the stars are a good target. One could argue that the CCSSI is not the stars, but that’s a subject for another day.

I’ve found the best place to start in the alignment process is to consult my state department of education website for guidance. I use this resource all the time, but it’s fair to note that some state sites are better than others. Here is a link to the California site’s section on special education and CCSSI just to show an example.

They link to symposiums and other helpful events, but there is a tab for “assessment”. There is an organization, Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and a California site to show how it all works. SBAC is national but not all states have joined the consortium. Your state department of education will provide similar links to SBAC if they are members. On their site, we can learn about achievement level setting. It seems others have walked this path before, so let’s let our colleagues help us. There is an organized way to migrate to CCSS in special ed classrooms. There are also technology assists for moving to an online testing environment.

In SBAC’s own words,

Achievement level setting, also known as standard setting, is the process used for establishing one or more cut scores on an assessment, making it possible to create categories of performance. Smarter Balanced Governing States are using a three-phase design for achievement level setting, which involves an online panel, an in-person panel, and a vertical articulation committee.” Through these ongoing panels, schools are learning how to adjust their existing classrooms to CCSS and testing for special needs students.

This is where I jump in and decry the level of commercial enterprise at work throughout the CCSSI environment. Or, do I? I no longer have a big problem with companies popping up to make a living with software, products, consortia, symposia or other packages of services to help schools navigate these enormous new challenges. Have I gone to the dark side?

I’m not entirely ready to question whether the public sector (corporations) should be handed the reins for all education related issues, but it’s worth looking at the options. State and federal departments of education are struggling to keep up with new regulations and protocols. I know, they should have thought of this before, but let’s back off a little and let some commercial enterprises in to help them out.

More resources to help sort it all out:

I’m hoping this blog stirs a response from you, makes you mad, or indignant, thrilled, or something. Even if you completely agree with my line of thinking, can you let me know what you think? We’re all trying to answer the question, “How do I align my curriculum to CCSSI”? Moreover, is it worth it?


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Blended Learning in Special Education

by Neva Fenno, M.S.Ed., MLIS

child teacher computer

Blended Learning Environments – Using technology and traditional SPED classroom instruction to facilitate learning.

There’s a buzzword that’s been gaining momentum in all education spheres these days: blended learning. Basically, (don’t wince—this is very basic) it is adding technology to existing classroom lessons to increase motivation and engagement in learning. It can include video, podcasts, streaming content from providers, interactive exercises, asynchronous and, increasingly, synchronous lessons. Grab one of those iPad labs the district is handing out; don’t be left out in the techie cold.

With blended learning, the student is the star with the teacher on hand for support. Some part of the lesson delivery is online using a learning management system (LMS) that includes a database to keep track of student assessment, attendance and achievement gains (the LMS does the heavy lifting). Assessment is just one way technology will facilitate student learning.

The shift to blended learning from a traditional special ed. classroom or resource room model should not be difficult. Traditional lesson planning strategies will overlap blended learning with a new way of looking at things. The best way to describe blended learning for a teacher who would like to understand the model might be to look at a blended learning lesson plan template. Can you select the lesson plan steps that will stay the same as your current plans?

ABC learningLesson Plan Template for Blended Learning Environments

  1. Alignment with Common Core State Standards (CCSS):
    Standards-based instruction for special ed. students remains number one; objectives must be aligned to the standards you have selected in your timeline and skills rollout.
  2. Objectives:
    In a special ed. model, you will be prepared to plan formultiple  Each student works toward his own goals. Students move continually forward, the pace is driven by assessment results that are part of the learning management system.
  3. Data Analysis:
    The guiding light in instruction is the careful analysis of the data provided by the LMS and your own formative assessments.
  4. Scheduling (blocking):

This is one of the challenges teachers face; the schedule and rollout of instruction for any standard will look very different at the elementary level from instruction in high school. In a SPED environment there are no heterogeneous groups, but lessons remain flexible so individuals can step out and move quickly through skills they grasp, while others will stay and repeat certain skills until mastery is achieved. You can arrange the class into somewhat flexible groups.

  1. Setting:
    Blended learning provides multiple environments to reassure students and accommodate for different learning styles. One environment for learning will be online and technology based. You may have a small group with several learning environments: computer labs, tablet labs, teacher led lessons, special tutoring and study carrel assignments. All of these can be modified for a resource room.
  2. Activities:
    You can use existing successful lesson plans, they can still access their thumb drives with the best lessons from past years. You will become expert in finding the lessons and activities that reach into the depths of your special students’ learning. Hands-on project-based learning can continue.
  3. Timing:
    Within blocks and scheduling schemas, you may have different groups working through different skill sets at the same time. You can make learning one-on-one by adjusting students’ time in the various microenvironments according to different needs.
  4. Assessment and Testing:
    Assessments are determined in the planning stage as markers to guide further learning. The goal for the teacher is to measure when students have met their objectives within a given standard.
  5. Organization:
    There are many lesson plan templates that show how existing teaching styles can be honed and fine-tuned for the new special ed. blended learning model. Some resources include:

Your classroom may need to be rearranged to suit the needs of the learners. The school network specialist will need to keep the internet connection open. Your district may install its own learning management system through which students can access your classroom assignments; it will be useful for SPED classrooms too. This developing trend shows promise for security conscious administrators.

teacher little girl

A new model for learning always suffers growing pains. There will be new ideas coming online all the time, but the promise of raising special ed. student achievement through blended learning is exciting. It pulls together all the effective strategies that educators have developed to manage standards-based instruction on a large scale, right down to the individual and his learning needs.

Other resources:


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