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.

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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

Special Education: Myth and Fact

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Special education and associated services are often misunderstood by parents and other community members.  It is not unusual for educators who are not part of the special education system to have limited knowledge about how special education provides evaluations and services to students who qualify.


One common misconception is that some students can’t receive certain special education services from a public school because the school is small and unable to provide such things as speech or occupational therapy. In reality, all special education programs are subsidized by the federal government. If either a school’s diagnostician or an outside evaluator determines that a child qualifies for a special education service, then the school district, regardless of its size or financial condition, is obligated to and MUST provide that service. This is at the heart of PL 94-142 (Public Law 94-142), the federal legislation that was developed in to find the “least restrictive environment” for students with special needs. If the school cannot provide the service, it must contract to have that service provided by a licensed individual or an outside agency. This can mean bringing in a specialist at great cost, or providing transportation (with the parents’ consent) to a neighboring community that can provide that service.

Another misconception is that once an IEP (Individualized Educational Program, a legal document) is signed by all parties, it cannot be changed until the next annual IEP meeting. In fact, parents can request an IEP meeting at any time, and it must be held within 30 days of their request. If changes are agreed upon, an amendment is added to the IEP.

It is often believed that the school has the final decision as to whether a child is eligible to receive special education services. Actually, parents have the right to disagree with the school’s eligibility assessment and can ask for an IEE (Independent Educational Evaluation) at the school’s expense. If there is a disagreement after the IEE between the school and the parents, the parents then have the right to a due process hearing where an impartial hearing officer will make the determination as to eligibility. School districts spend time and money to provide responses to requirements of the law. One of the great challenges for anyone entering the special education field is to develop skills for working with stakeholders on behalf of a child, to find the best solutions to complex problems for everyone concerned. The key is to avoid conflict, achieve consensus, and provide optimum learning environments for children in our care.


Are special education services restricted to special education classrooms?  A number of parents of special education students were special education students themselves when they went to school. It is possible that their programs consisted mainly of going to special education classrooms for instruction in the various subject areas. Today, this is not the case. Least restrictive environment means that disabled children should be educated in the regular classroom along with the general population of students as much as possible. To do less is to violate special education law.

It is often believed that special education is extremely costly and is a constant drain on the regular budgets of most schools. This is not always the case. While sports programs, art, band, and other programs for the general population are totally funded by the regular school budget, the special education program is largely subsidized by the federal government. It is true that taxpayers are still paying for these services through the federal taxes that they pay, but a very small amount of the money for special education is actually coming out of a school district’s regular budget. This does not negate the fact that there are sometimes large costs involved, they are simply borne by federal funds. If your school has noticed that children are needing a specific machine or technology to comply with IEP documents, a grant may be written to purchase it, as it will no doubt be needed again. To start your grant search, you may use the Achievement Products® Free Grant Database.

Over the years, as medical science has evolved, there have been many children who survive birth defects that would have prematurely ended their lives. These children exhibit very complex medical situations that are challenges to communities, but people have risen to the challenge and invented ways to keep these children in classrooms when possible.  We’ve employed new technologies, advances in prosthetics, and assistive machinery to keep children in public classrooms all over the nation. This has meant an improved quality of life for thousands of children in our care.

Providing appropriate special education services for all of the students who qualify is a complex and expensive task. There is little wonder that some misconceptions surrounding special education law have lingered over the years as we have changed our responses to new challenges.


Grant Name:  LEGO Children’s Fund Grants

Funded By:  LEGO Children’s Fund

Description:  The LEGO Children’s Fund will provide quarterly grants for programs, either in part or in total, with a special interest paid to collaborative efforts and in providing matching funds to leverage new dollars into the receiving organization. We will give priority consideration to programs that both meet our goals and are supported in volunteer time and effort by our employees.

Program Areas:  After-School, At-Risk/Character, General Education, Health/PE, Math, Reading, Science/Environment, Social Studies, Special Education, Technology

Recipients:  Public School, Private School, Other

Proposal Deadline:  Quarterly, October 15, 2013, January 15, 2014, April 15, 2014, July 14, 2014

Average Amount:  $500.00 – $5,000.00



Availability:  All States