Saturday, May 17, 2014

Assessing Our Place

The controversy over state and national assessments, the common core, and the place of students with disabilities within that structure is a loud and large debate on which everyone has an opinion and everyone knows best.

I don't know best, but I do have an opinion, which I would like to share.

The MCAS-alt (Massachusetts's alternate assessment protocol for students who are unable to take the state test, even with accommodations) may not be a valid, or even meaningful, test of student progress toward meeting grade level standards. However, it is an important requirement of all students educational program because it requires teachers, for 40-90 lessons out of the school year, to provide at least some academic instruction to all students, regardless of perceived "ability."

These are the teachers, and some of them have been my colleagues, who are inordinately proud of themselves for keeping their students safe and happy. They feel that is proof that they are doing a good job. I can't help but wonder if they are familiar with the difference between the job description for babysitter and the job description for teacher - and which one they think they are doing?

These teachers truly believe, and have convinced many wonderful parents as well, that the MCAS-alt is a waste of both student and teacher's time because it takes away from focusing on the important (usually developmentally-based) skills that the student "should" be working on according to her/his IEP.

Yet, when the IEP is written with the grade level curriculum as the starting point (as opposed to the outdated and usually bogus notion of the student's "developmental level") as the starting point, the MCAS-alt portfolio flows naturally from the student goals, even for students who do not have a formal communication system and students who are working on "access skills" (not necessarily an interchangeable group.)

These teachers get offended at all the requirements to keep a portfolio from being marked incomplete. (10 different dates. Data on work samples must match data on graphs if the dates match. etc.) Yes, it's a pain, but if you actually teach the lessons throughout the year, it's really not hard. And that's the point. Fundamentally, this assessment isn't about whether the student learned the grade level material (because if they can access grade level material, why are you doing alternate assessment?) It's not even about showing student progress and mastery (because teachers chose both the skill - within limits - and the mastery criterion.) No, at its most basic level, the MCAS-alt is about forcing teachers' hands to ensure that all students get at least a little access to instruction in the academic curriculum. And as long as we have teachers who don't think their students "are ready for" academics we will need the MCAS-alt portfolio assessment, with all its hoops, to make sure they give their students at least a little bit. For the rest of us who are teaching curriculum and trying to move our students forward into more inclusive environments? Well, it's one more bureaucratic hoop to jump through, and in the world of special education, who will notice one more?

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