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The Role of Assessments in Special Education

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In February 2014, Teach Plus published a report "The Student and the Stopwatch: How Much Time is Spent on Testing in American Schools." One of the report's major findings is that urban students spend an average of only 1.7 percent of the school year taking state and district-required tests. In this series, Teach Plus teachers comment on assessments and the impact they have on their students and teaching practice.


By Michael Phaneuf

Last year one of my students, Darren, made tremendous gains in math. Our entire Special Education team felt that he was ready to move from a substantially separate classroom to the general curriculum for math. All the data we had collected, including standardized tests that measured his ability to meet grade-level standards, gave us the green light to do this. This year, as Darren was preparing for this transition, we asked him to complete an online diagnostic: a new initiative by my school to better assess my students' ability levels.

Unlike other assessments, this diagnostic doesn't measure how students perform at their grade level. Instead, it measures the actual grade-level standards students have mastered. This means that an eighth grader's results could show that he or she has only mastered fifth grade Common Core Standards. As I reviewed Darren's performance on this assessment, I came across an astounding piece of data. Although his other skills showed that he was ready to transition, Darren had only mastered kindergarten Common Core Standards in geometry. By catching this, I was able to add the kinds of goals and objectives into his Individual Education Plan that would set him up for success.

But what if I had only looked at the data that showed his skill set compared to his grade level Common Core Standards, like the data provided by our state test? I would have seen a potential deficit, but I would have never known the severity. I would not have been able to give Darren the same support as he transitioned.

For those of us who teach special education, scores from assessments like the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) are often a source of frustration and anxiety. Though we may see gains in achievement, many of our students are still performing significantly below grade level standards and below their grade level peers. For instance, one of my students, Shannon, has moved up two grade levels in reading over the past two years. Yet, she is still reading at a second grade reading level, and will not be able to produce achievement gains on the eighth grade test. Shannon's scores will still place her in the warning or needs-improvement category. It makes sense: a student who can read, comprehend, and analyze second grade texts, does not yet have the skills to read, comprehend, and analyze a set of eighth grade texts evaluated on the test. However, it is important that the gains Shannon does make are captured by our assessments.

This does not mean that students with special needs should not be assessed using state standardized tests. We need to look at the data these tests provide to measure how our students are performing towards grade level Common Core Standards. In addition, we need to evaluate and report the gains being made by our special education students in terms of their own development. We should be able to understand the grade level at which they perform, the difference between where they are and the grade level they need to be, and the rate at which they are progressing towards their grade level standards. This data is critical for us to gain a better understanding of when special education students have mastered the skills that would allow them to showcase their learning gains on a state assessment.

As we head towards using new Common Core-aligned assessments, it is important that we in special education have the information we need to help improve student achievement. I am hopeful that the new assessments will be able to develop testing specifically for my students that will report the skills they have mastered. If we can understand the gap between where our students are and where they need to be, special education teachers will be able to create targeted instruction that will help us make gains with Darren and many other students like him.

Michael Phaneuf is a Founding Special Education Teacher and Cohort Leader at UP Academy Charter School of Boston. He teaches English to sixth, seventh, and eighth graders with a variety of special education designations. Michael is a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow.

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