Can the Department of Education Make the Grade?

A Professional Development seminar, often, is a wonderful opportunity to regroup, come together to share ideas and learn from the diverse yet like-minded members of a professional community. It is certainly not the free coffee and Danish served at a cheesy venue that lures us to these meetings; this is a chance to enhance our professional growth outside of the regular academic setting.

In stark contrast to these professional perks, the session I attended recently, sponsored by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), made me and a few hundred others like me look like complete idiots, for many years in a row. The fact that I had to not only sit through hours of twaddle but am also expected to implement the strict guidelines, the elaborate changes and the stringent methods of what was being outlined, made me cringe. It is so shameful that I am embarrassed simply talking about it and trying to explain its relevance to folks with basic common sense lest I be ridiculed.

The in-service, the first of many for the school year, was a training for MCAS Alt. The Department of Education's website describes MCAS Alt as "... 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".

In the year 2014-2015, a total of 8474 students throughout MA participated in this form of Portfolio Assessment. The disabilities spanned a wide gamut ranging from severe multiple handicaps, complex medical conditions, rare cognitive impairments, amongst others. As I relate to you a true story from my own experience, I want you to bear in mind the words DESE uses to describe the students who participate in MCAS Alt.

In the early 2000's when I taught at a hospital school for students with complex disabilities and severe medical needs, the Department of Education entrusted me with the daunting task of assessing my student, who for privacy's sake we'll refer to as "Marky". Marky, who was clinically "brain dead", had been kept alive by medications and machines for years yet I had to test him in all the academic areas as his typical peers --- English Language Arts, Math, Science, Technology & Engineering and Social Studies. Marky did not have a reliable response in spite of a hard-working, competent team of service providers trying to equip him with one for years but because he needed one now more than ever to answer academic questions mandated by Big Brother, we forcefully "told" him what his response should be -- one blink of the eye for a Yes and two blinks for a No. Who were we kidding? The entire process of academic data collection, for lack of a better word was ridonculous.

In the fall we found out that the same young man, who barely responded to stimuli, had scored the highest on MCAS Alt and was deemed to be "progressing" in all academic areas. At a faculty meeting soon after the scores were released, we, the consummate professionals sat around snickering and laughing at this farce. It was hysterically tragic. As teachers shared their portfolio results and the feedback from the Department of Education, we learned how students with the most complex of conditions, one of them with a chunk of her brain removed as a result of a horrific accident, scored "Progressing" on all academic areas assessed. Meanwhile, the portfolio that received an "Incomplete" belonged to a student who was also the highest functioning in the school. Her mistake was that her teacher had inadvertently dated incorrectly one of the worksheets that had been submitted as evidence of her Portfolio. Although clearly an oversight, the Pundits at DESE ruled this a grave error and decided to penalize my student for my slip. Another solemn error was that one of the most amazing teachers I have ever worked with was negligent enough to leave out her student's last name on one of the data sheets included in the portfolio. How dare she make such a terrible mistake? So of course the Department of Education, in all its fairness, decided that "Zach" should be punished for his teacher's oversight. His Portfolio deservedly received an "I' for incomplete and/or missing data.

Our light-heartedness at that staff meeting soon took on a more somber tone; laughter turned to frustration but soon we consoled ourselves by unanimously agreeing that MCAS Alt was a joke and would most definitely be eradicated in no time. It has been over a decade since; the requirements of the Department of Education for administering this travesty have only grown stronger and stricter every year. And believe it or not, to this day, a student is penalized for his/her teacher's oversight. Who the heck is the Department of Education trying to assess here - I often wonder?

To understand firsthand the absurdity of this process, particularly the Scoring and Reporting Results, I would strongly urge you to check out the State Summary of MCAS-Alt for 2014 by logging on to:

Look- I am all for accountability but when educators are required to do the absolute impossible, it becomes a laughing matter. How is it possible or even necessary to academically assess a student who is struggling from one minute to the next to stay alive, breathing through a ventilator, feeding through a G-tube, needing suctioning every few minutes by a highly trained nurse shadowing her 24/7 just so she can breathe? Tell me why the student with an IQ of 20, who struggles to stay awake in class because of a traumatic brain injury or the child with severe Autism, who only wants to spin everything in sight relentlessly on the window sill and even after 10 years of schooling has not mastered the very basic activities of daily living skills, need to demonstrate their understanding of the Pythagorean theorem? Shame on us that we are so blinded by accountability and academic rigor that we forget that education for our kids with severe special needs (and their assessment) is supposed to be individualized. We no longer see the real problems facing these fragile children and instead of helping them better their quality of life, hold them to the same standards as their peers in the regular academic setting. Sadly, once again I smell political correctness and the inane desire to clump all children into the same category so as not to ruffle any feathers. Where is the leadership? Where is the strong voice that says loud and clear that this is ludicrous? (And we call ourselves educators?)

DESE eloquently talks about creative ways to put together an MCAS Alt portfolio but the truth remains that educators are still being asked to somehow relate the skills that these kids are being taught to the MA curriculum frameworks. These self-proclaimed education experts also persuasively outline how a teacher with a student with intense needs, like "Marky", should be tying the curriculum frameworks to his "access skills". Let me tell you from experience that while all this sounds grrreat on paper, in reality this is a colossal, unnecessary farce. A "good teaching practice", that DESE loves to refer to, in this case would be to focus on the student's health and overall well-being while keeping him stimulated as much as possible. Instead of assessing his understanding of the Earth Sciences or somehow acquiring samples of his creative writing, why don't we use some of the state's seemingly endless resources being squandered away in developing these ridiculous policies, to explore meaningful activities that kids like "Marky" would perhaps respond to, for example music therapy. Enriching the lives of those who have been dealt a cruel and unfair deck of cards most definitely seems to be a better use of taxpayer funds. By the way a "New and Notable Requirement for the 2016 MCA Alt", in the words of DESE as outlined in Page 3 of the MCAS Alt Manual is as follows: "Students in grades 3-8 and 10 will be required to submit three different writing samples in the MCAS-Alt portfolio, produced in each student's primary mode of communication. Writing samples may include any combination of four text types (argument/opinion, informational text, narrative, or poetry). Teachers must pre-score each student's final work samples prior to submission, using one of the four scoring rubrics provided for this purpose. A draft or baseline sample must also be submitted in whichever text type is selected for the final sample. See pp. 20- 21 for additional information on preparing and pre-scoring student writing samples..."

I ask you to ponder honestly for just a minute. What do you think is happening in a classroom when a teacher is required to put together a dozen, elaborate, time-consuming portfolios when a majority of his students are severely cognitively impaired, functioning at an infant level? Exactly! And this is why I feel compelled to share with the general public what we educators are being pressured to do. It is preposterous, unethical and but most of all -- uneducated.

The problem with all this is a basic one, one that is becoming increasingly common in all areas of education. The folks, often brilliant personnel at the helm, who are making decisions for our students and teachers, have unfortunately never stepped foot in a classroom. They work in a vacuum and although their policies claim to be data-driven, I wonder where their knowledge is really coming from. In the madness to make every policy scientific, and in the name of equity, they are trading in a most basic trait -- that of sound judgment. We all know that a robot can perform the most complex of computations but it cannot be programmed to make a simple, split-second decision based on common sense. Need I say more?

As I looked around the banquet hall and saw hundreds of stunned educators listening to the rants of superiors completely cut off from reality, I could feel my anger surging yet again. These were smart professionals with the best of intentions and undoubtedly the kindest of hearts because each had made a concerted decision to work with the neediest of our children. And that's when it hit me after all these years what I have always taught my most vulnerable kids: "Don't do something just because someone asks you to do it, always question especially if something seems off". It is now time to practice what I preach because something is off -- way off. It is time to hold the experts accountable and evaluate the policies they have so forcefully enforced on us. It is high time to put together an alternate portfolio of our Education Department's skills and to assess its competency indiscriminately. Let's be fair now.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of the school district she is employed by.