There is new Common Core assessment claiming to be “rigorous” for students with severe cognitive disabilities. Do students with severe disabilities need rigor?
The assessment is being likened to a “journey” like a beautiful trip.
Or, is it a trip to nowhere?
It touts accountability, but I see no safety net for students if they fail. And the assessment itself, while showy, is unproven and seems bizarrely out-of-touch.
It is Online and Ongoing Common Core
It is Common Core computer-driven assessment at basic levels.
Also, no more than 1 percent of students, about 10 percent of all students with disabilities, will be eligible to take the alternative assessments. All other students with disabilities must master grade-level academics and will have to take the general assessment—Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARC) or Smarter Balanced Assessment (SBAC).
Yet, students with severe cognitive disabilities are supposed to have “access to grade-level content” with Common Core.
With the new assessment, Dynamic Learning Maps (DLM) and the National Center and State Collaborative (NCSC) promise they’ve got everyone covered.
How Do Students With Severe Disabilities Learn?
I’m thinking of the students I worked with who had severe disabilities. Goals involved establishing eye contact, speech and language, physical therapy and learning day-to-day skills, like how to chew solid food and use the toilet.
One of my students had a language board, created by a brilliant teacher who worked in the classroom next door. This student communicated well, pointing to the words on the board.
I am trying to envision instructionally embedded assessment—what they call the testing. It is supposed to help students with vision issues too.
I don’t want to slam augmentative communication. Some kinds of technology can be helpful for students with severe disabilities.
But assessment to bring students to Common Core skills, standards questionable to begin with, seems strange.
It’s a Miracle! Well, No. Not Really. But it Sounds Like It
This Common Core assessment is NOT about devising a plan that celebrates children and their differences. The words Individual Educational Plan don’t jump out at me.
But it makes big promises to get students career and college ready.
The DLM system will integrate assessment with instruction during the year, providing a year-end assessment, the DLM system maps student learning aligned with college and career readiness standards in English language arts and mathematics.
There’s a lot of data collection too. But it doesn’t seem to be useful data.
Likewise, the NCSC says its goal is to ensure that students with the most significant cognitive disabilities achieve increasingly higher academic outcomes and leave high school ready for post-secondary options.
If you visit both these sites, you will see adults with students and they are pointing to the computer screen. Here is a promotion video.
For today’s education reformers, the computer is the great equalizer. Call it digital. Call it personalized…competency-based…e-learning…virtual…or just call it sitting at a desk online on the computer.
With this new assessment parents are led to believe their student’s problems are solved!
What the Hell are Linkage Levels?
Like Common Core, in general, this alternative assessment for students with severe disabilities has all kinds of strange language. I am always reminded of English teachers who, while teaching writing, said “simplify, simplify, simplify.” You will not find that here.
Terms are odd. Instead of simply calling goals, goals, they use the term “essential elements.”
Here is a quote from the DLM manual.
The least complex of the linkage levels is called the Initial Precursor. Testlets developed at the Initial Precursor level often reflect foundational nodes in the learning map, which skills and understandings necessary for learning subsequent academic content (e.g., “focus attention”).
One of my past students needed to focus. My goal was “Jane will reach eye contact 3 out of 5 times upon request to look at me.” I would positively reinforce Jane with cereal bits when she looked me in the eyes. Later when we weren’t working on this skill, I sought to catch her looking at me and interacting socially. I rewarded her with lots of praise when those occasions occurred.
Being able to finally break through and see a non-communicative student suddenly smile at you is the greatest achievement in the world! How, I wonder, does this work digitally?
But to answer my own question about the vocabulary, they do tell us that Linkage levels are identified by locating the node or nodes in the learning map that most closely match the EE. Nodes specify individual skills and understanding that were identified in the research in mathematics and English language arts.
I am a hypochondriac, so all this node talk makes me rather uncomfortable.
Just know that behind the confusing language there is an online multiple choice test waiting to happen.
How Can Standards Be the Same But Different?
This new assessment has led to a NCSC report called “Standards That are the ‘Same But Different’” and this sounds confusing. What I think it means is, students work online doing different skills but in the end everyone will arrive at the same Common Core promise land where differences will no longer exist.
This is a tall order. I think they should be careful with such predictions, because it will take just one wealthy parent with a good attorney who is going to realize these tests are not making any difference in their child’s life.
How many school districts have spent thousands, even millions on hardware, in general, only to watch test scores remain stagnant?
Despite the hype, there is no proof anywhere that technology by any of the names and especially through the use of assessment will make everyone, including students with the most severe disabilities, college ready.
Assessment is not Instruction
Assessment as they describe it, will not magically transform a child to be college ready either.
What education reformers do not understand, is that assessment is simply a tool. This assessment appears to be ongoing testing following rote skill presentation in English language arts and mathematics. But assessment is still the focus.
Assessment evaluates what a child learns, sometimes, but it is not the teaching part of education.
Serious questions arise when you attempt to blend instruction with testing so quickly. It is very much like rote learning.
Research is Non-existent so Make Least Dangerous Assumptions?
One gets the feeling DLM and NCSC understand their own product is unproven.
If you look for research that shows that online assessment works and students with serious disabilities will learn best this way you will find none.
So the promotors of this assessment point to an 1984 article in Behavioral Disorders where they state: The evidence emerged from educators who adhered to the least dangerous assumption, which…holds that in the absence of conclusive data, educational decisions ought to be based on assumptions which, if incorrect, will have the least dangerous effect on the likelihood that students will be able to function independently as adults.
Dismissing functional programs of instruction for students with serious disabilities and promoting unproven online assessment is nothing short of alarming.
There is research about how to work with students who have serious disabilities. We have known for years, for example, that positive behavioral modification works well with students who have severe disabilities including autism.
While computers hold promise for students with disabilities, especially in communication, they are not a be-all, end-all solution. I don’t believe, and many agree, that they will ever be able to take over the job of a quality special education teacher.
Of Course, It Is Costly
Education Week is reporting that DLM and NCSC got $67 million in federal funds for college-and career-ready standards for those students who “are not expected to master grade-level material.” I suppose that’s chump change compared to the $360 million the federal government spent for PARCC and SBAC.
But it is concerning that there is no talk about how this is going to be included on an Individual Educational Plan where parents should get to decide whether their child will be a part of this or any other assessment.
Parents, teachers and citizens in this country should be raising serious questions about all the tax dollars going to such online ventures that are not vetted properly and which seem ill-conceived.
Children should not be led on a journey to nowhere.
Samuels, Christina A. “Alternative Tests Aligned With Common Core Find Niche in Special Ed.” Education Week. April 27, 2016.
Wells-Moreaux, S., & Karvonen, M. 2015. “Accessibility Manual for the Dynamic Learning Maps Alternative Assessment, 2015-2016.” Laurence, KS: The University of Kansas Center for Educational Testing and Evaluation.
“AA-AAS Standards That Are the ‘Same but Different.’” National Center and State Collaborative. June 2015.
Paula Drew says
This is spot on, Nancy! Thank you for raising these serious questions. As the mother of one such severely disabled child, I do not want her subjected to such meaningless assessments while her time could be better spent on genuine learning, communication, and life skills. Two months out of the school year are devoted to these one-size-fits all assessments that don’t provide any useful information to me or her teacher. Huge waste of time, money,and resources.
Nancy Bailey says
Thank you, Paula! Thank you for your strong voice!
Máté Wierdl says
“Dismissing functional programs of instruction for students with serious disabilities and promoting unproven online assessment is nothing short of alarming.”
No, it’s criminal. Time to use the appropriate word.
Thanks Nancy. I learnt a lot, as always.
Nancy Bailey says
Thanks, Máté! Yes. That’s a better word for it. You’re right.
Parents of special needs really need to go to informational meetings about the computerized alternate assessments.
Nancy Bailey says
Excellent point! I think a lot of parents are intrigued with the information and technology. I also think such confusing terms make it sound like something special. They need to ask questions–a lot of them. Thank you, Veronica.
Autumn Moon says
I find it absurd to subject these students to common core “rigor”. It is anusive in my opinion and inappropriate and not individualized.
Nancy Bailey says
Definitely abusive. I agree. Thank you.
Julie Borst says
Thank you, Nancy! I’ve had a partially written post on this topic just sitting. I’m so angry about it, I can’t even collect my thoughts. I’m still so glad my daughter is almost done with this. The damage done, over the years, as a direct consequence of assessment-focused education will never be fixed. I can’t even begin to imagine how much worse it will be under ESSA.
Nancy Bailey says
I think we know that those behind this kind of programming are most likely programmers and not teachers and/or parents who have worked with children. Thank you, Julie. Thank you for your voice on education reform and where ESSA is concerned too.
Darciann Samples says
I gave the DLM to two students. It was a total waste of time! The reading was simply at the first grade level (they are both third grade) with questions so obvious as to be laughable. The math required me to gather a bunch of stuff (which I did not know until I opened the assessment) and was either ridiculously hard or ridiculously simple (for the same student). You could only assess for about 15 minutes then had to wait an hour for the next test to be loaded. Each child took eight individual sessions of 15 minutes each, wasting everyone’s day. My friend teaches more severe students, and had to give these 8 session tests to 8 different students. 64 individual test sessions with a minimum of an hour between each session. I can guarantee that no learning occurred during the weeks she was required to fiddle with this system of test and wait. There is no rhyme nor reason to the assessments, and we did not learn one thing about our students that we did not already know.
Nancy Bailey says
Thank you for sharing your experience, Darciann. I am sorry to hear about the time that was wasted. And your point about not knowing about the assessment until the last minute is a troubling aspect of today’s testing and the distrust of teachers.
I agree with everything above. This is my second go around administering this nonsense. I would love to forward you the many emails we get telling us that this is going to be delayed, or another part of the assessment isn’t working yet and on and on. I gave students with significant cognitive disabilities that work on simple addition such as one plus one the math assessment. It is supposed to be on a level they can work with. The test asked them questions about intercept and slope. Please let me know if you would like a copy of the emails we are sent from the Missouri Department of Education regarding this farce.
Public School Teacher 33 years, all in Special Education
Nancy Bailey says
Thank you, Mel. I will email you about this.