Sunday, July 15, 2007

Testing is questioned as far as the special needs and visually impaired students are concerned!

Sixteen-year-old Inga Pleasant lies on a gurney, her dark hair swept back off her face and a breathing tube at her throat. Though she's officially in the 10th grade, Inga is more like a baby.
She's had severe brain damage since she was 7, when she was struck by a drunken driver as she played in her neighborhood. She can't speak. She can't breathe on her own, and she is fed through a tube.


What do you think about the policy of testing severely impaired students?

Inga attends Reddix Habilitation Program in the Northside Independent School District. Staffed with nurses as well as teachers, the facility serves 54 of the most medically fragile public school students from throughout Bexar County.

Her teacher, Dinorah Hernandez, shows Inga two pictures: One is of a cloud with a face drawn on it, its mouth a circle blowing other clouds away. The other picture is of the sun. Hernandez presses a button on a machine that makes the sound of the wind.

"What makes that sound, Inga?" Hernandez asks, holding the two cards up.

Inga's dark eyes move from one picture to the other. Hernandez plays the sound again and repeats her question. Inga's eyes fix on the picture of the cloud for about five seconds.

Northside ISD teacher Dinorah Hernandez makes sounds with a device for Inga Pleasant, 16, at the Reddix Habilitation Program. Some wonder if mandated special education testing isn't a form of cruelty.

Fatima Essa, 18, and Ryan Perez,17, both special education students at Clark High, work on exercises for the TAKS-Alt, which tests special-ed students in the same subject areas nonimpaired students face on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.

Hernandez has her answer.

"Good job," she tells Inga.

Such exercises can help students like Inga become aware of their environment and communicate. But this was no exercise. It was a state-mandated science test. The test and others like it are required for even the most seriously impaired special education students as part of President Bush's federal education reform law, No Child Left Behind.

Throughout Bexar County and the nation, barely functioning students are taking such tests so school districts can prove they're complying with a law whose stated goal is to "leave no child behind." But teachers, testing directors and curriculum specialists across San Antonio wonder if subjecting these students to such testing can provide any meaningful gauge of academic progress.

More pointedly, they wonder if the testing is a form of unintentional cruelty.

"This test is a true travesty being visited onto a very special, fragile group of students without consideration of the huge amount of lost instructional time for these who need it most," said Sandra Poth, testing director at Northside ISD.

Before the requirement to test special-ed students kicked in, assessing their progress was left entirely to local school districts. That all changed with the federal law, which mandates that every child be tested, regardless of ability. Last school year, for the first time, Hernandez had to test special-ed students in the same subject areas non-impaired students face on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, the state's mandatory standardized test.

So, special-ed students in grades three through 11 — the same grades the regular TAKS was administered — took the TAKS-Alt (short for alternative) in at least two and as many as four subjects — reading, math, science and social studies — depending on their grade level. The students' grade level is determined by their age, not their ability.

In San Antonio, more than 1,600 special-ed children took the test; statewide, about 15,000 were tested.

Countless extra work

For the approximately 200 special-ed teachers working with the most profoundly disabled kids in the San Antonio area's 16 school districts, creating, administering, documenting and scoring the science TAKS-Alt, alone, meant an investment of countless work hours over their regular duties.
Middle and high school teachers reported spending at least 150 additional hours on TAKS-Alt during a three-month period.

State education officials charge local educators with developing the specific ways the TAKS-Alt — rarely, if ever, a pencil and paper test — will be administered.

Any assessment teachers use must marry state curriculum requirements with the realities of their students' impairments. Teachers must document everything about the actual test taking, including whether they had to prompt students for answers, as they often do with the most impaired students.
Dr. Patricia Harkins, a developmental pediatrician in San Antonio, said she doesn't see the purpose of testing such students on a mandated curriculum, particularly when it means taking teachers out of the classroom to complete a blizzard of paperwork.

"The whole purpose of special education is to determine goals that are individually customized to the child. If they are tested, it should be on what those goals are, not on the state curriculum," Harkins said. "It's another example that the whole testing situation is just out of control."

Thirteen-year-old Kevin Boothe has cerebral palsy. He uses a wheelchair, is visually impaired and can't swallow. He is fed through a tube and doesn't speak. Teachers describe him as one of the higher-functioning students at Reddix.

Kevin's recent English language arts test consisted of teacher Dorothy Reeh reading a story to him. When she finished a page, she paused and asked Kevin what to do if he wanted more of the story.

Kevin paused, and slowly dragged his hand across the desk and pressed a button that played a voice recording.

"More story please," the recording said.

Reeh continued reading and stopped again at the end of the next page to wait for Kevin's prompt.
Sometimes, Kevin hit the button on his own. Most often, Reeh had to remind him. If he grew tired or became distracted, she took his hand and helped him press the button.

Kevin's mother, Jean Boothe, said she's caught between wanting her son to make the most progress he can and sparing him the excesses of testing she considers inappropriate.

"We want to provide the best for them so you test them, but in this case, what do you gain from that?" Boothe said. "I'm horrified the teachers are spending so much time on it."

The debate

Janice Keeler, principal at Reddix, wonders if the federal law's good intentions have backfired.
"Our children have cerebral palsy. They are visually impaired, hearing impaired. We deal with seizures on a regular basis," she said. "In the bigger picture, I understand very much what they're trying to do: set standards and get everybody on the same level. But it completely ignores what's possible in the case of a developmentally impaired child."

Many parents of special needs students, adamant about doing right by their kids, find themselves activists in a battle they never wanted to fight. Some long have clamored for more testing and accountability, arguing their children should have strong educational standards, too.

"It's a kind of civil rights issue, giving kids access to the curriculum," said Jacqui Kearns, director of the National Alternative Assessment Center at the University of Kentucky. "If you leave anybody out of accountability, then they're at risk for not being taught. Families really want their kids to have access to academic content that other kids have."

Inga Pleasant's mom, Melissa E. Head, said she knows her daughter's medical condition likely never will improve, but if it did, she wants to know that Inga has been given every opportunity to learn and advance.

"In her condition, it stimulates her brain," she said. "I think all schools should do that for handicapped children."

Alexa Posny, former director of the Office of Special Education Programs for the U.S. Education Department, said an increased focus on curriculum and testing — even for disabled students — is producing unexpected, positive results.

"Part of what we're hearing from parents is that, for the first time, their kids are being held to a more challenging standard and they're happy about that," Posny said. "We're finding out that these kids are more capable than we thought and you'll hear teachers say, 'I had no idea.'"

Others argue that another federal law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, already extends protections and special services to the 6.7 million impaired children now being educated in the nation's public schools.

The law mandates that public schools develop specific blueprints, or Individual Education Plans, for educating each special-ed child. The plans must establish goals for the school year developed by a committee that includes the child's parents, teacher and curriculum specialists.

"I think we keep really good records on these kids because their IEP requires it," said Kathy McKinney , special education director for Fort Sam Houston, Randolph Field and Lackland independent school districts, which serve students on San Antonio's military bases. "There is constant monitoring and reporting on this population of students."

But Posny believes developing tests based on a state's curriculum is critical for disabled students.
"Special-ed teachers need to be aware of what the state standards are," said Posny, who left the Education Department recently to become commissioner of education in Kansas.

In Texas, teachers are becoming intimately familiar with the state curriculum.

Building blocks

To develop a method for administering the TAKS-Alt, teachers use the state's curriculum — called the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills — as a guide. They must compare what impaired students would be able to accomplish at their grade levels if they weren't impaired, and then decide on a skill at the student's actual developmental level that could be considered a so-called "building block" to progress.

For example, a student in the 10th grade needs to be able to "express and support responses to various types of texts," according to the state curriculum.

For a non-impaired sophomore, this means reading literature and writing an essay that cites examples from the reading. But for the special education 10th-grader who's on a second-grade level developmentally, the building block skill could be listening to stories read aloud. For the test, then, a teacher might read a story aloud, then ask the student questions about it.

Teachers must come up with four such tests for each subject: reading, math, science and social studies. If students successfully complete one activity, teachers must come up with a second one to show they can accomplish the skill in a different setting. That's a minimum of 16 activities for one student, and many high school teachers may have a dozen students, or more, taking the tests. It can take seven to 10 hours to both test and complete documentation for one student.

"I agree with the premise that we need to have some way to quantify and measure children's progress," said Toni Riester-Wood, director of special education, moderate to severe programs, for North East ISD. "But this test is incredibly cumbersome."

For the upcoming school year, the number of required activities will increase.

"I haven't taught in two weeks because I've been doing TAKS-Alt," said Anna Marabella, a veteran special education teacher at Redland Oaks Elementary in North East ISD who teaches autistic children. "It was literally hundreds of hours of work. All our energy is into it. I'm testing all year and I'm doing paperwork, and all I want to do is teach."

Not baby sitters

Jennifer Fitzhugh, a teacher at Jackson Middle School in North East ISD, said it was good to be reminded she should be linking what she's teaching to the state curriculum, even if she has to break it down to a more basic level for her students.

"I love the accountability factor," she said. "We are teachers, not baby sitters."

She said the test actually was a boost for her kids' self esteem. Students in her class have a range of abilities — from very basic to relatively functional.

"They're in middle school and they know it's a big deal for everyone when TAKS testing is going on," Fitzhugh said. "I told them, 'This is your TAKS test and you're going to show me how smart you are.' They loved that."

Kearns, the director for the National Alternative Assessment Center, said the test will become less cumbersome as teachers become familiar with it. Besides, she said, the damage of what she calls "bad testing" doesn't outweigh the harm done by failing to challenge special-ed students.

"A few days of bad testing doesn't beat out 12 years of no instruction," she said. "If we assume a student doesn't know what's going on and never will, what does it hurt to expose them to the curriculum? But if we don't teach them, and we were wrong in our assumption of what they're capable of, what damage have we done?"

Karen Pumphrey, a special education teacher at Clark High in Northside ISD, isn't so sure.
Along with lessons in reading, math and social studies, she teaches her students basic life skills she hopes will help them live as independently as possible someday.

"My students are not in the general education curriculum," Pumphrey said. "I know they want us to be TEKS-based, but for what purpose? We teach them how to use a stove, how to get a job."
For Rosemary Perez, the testing issue is personal. She's director of compensatory education for Northside and the mother of a special needs child, Ryan Perez, who is a student in Pumphrey's classroom. Ryan, 17, has Down syndrome, and Perez has high hopes for what he will be able to do when he grows up.

She's glad he's getting academic instruction, but she has more pressing concerns.

"It's more important for Ryan to be able to let us know his needs, how to express those and problem-solve for himself," she said. "I'm not worried about his math skills or his composition skills. I'm happy if he can write his first and last name."


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