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Measuring the progress of special-ed students is hard, even at the elementary level.
IAM A national-board-certified special education teacher in Spotsylvania County schools. I have taught here for 10 years and have been a special education teacher for more than 20 years. I am writing to you because of concerns that I have for the new Virginia Alternative Assessment Program for students with significant cognitive disabilities.
The expectation of the No Child Left Behind Act is that the majority of students with disabilities can and should participate in and achieve proficiency on state assessments. I teach a small percentage of students with disabilities who may not reach grade-level standards, even with the best appropriate instruction. These are students with the most significant cognitive disabilities (about 10 percent of all special education students). The Title I regulations allow these students to take an alternate assessment based on achievement standards that are less difficult and more tailored to their needs. Their proficient scores can be counted in the same way as any other student's proficient score on a state assessment. This alternate assessment is used for students who have IQs of 55 or lower. (Average normal intelligence is 100.)
My concerns are for the new changes to VAAP that have been put into place this school year. I teach at the high-school level, and previously my students were held to an aligned standard in accordance with their academic level. The VAAP curriculum was aligned only up to the sixth-grade SOL standard. Currently, they are being held to the same high-school proficiency level as general education students. We are expected to increase our students' knowledge by many years within a short period of time.
This is not acceptable for students with significant cognitive disabilities. General education students would not have to attain these levels in one year. All of my students follow an Individualized Education Plan that provides for a combination of functional and standards-based curriculum that will allow them to be as independent as possible and promotes life-skills learning that will help them be self-sufficient. (My students' functional grade levels range from pre-K through third grade.)
Is it realistic to expect students with significant cognitive disabilities to meet the same level of achievement as all general education students? We cannot expect all students to be the same. This does not follow the ideal guidelines of a free and appropriate education. There is nothing appropriate about a student with a 55 IQ or lower trying to learn algebra.
How will that help them in the future? Academic cognitive testing for these students is done by standardized psychological testing that provides the IQ scores. The outcome for many of my students will be staying at home with guardians, sheltered employment, or employment with coaching. The IEP is established for the "individual" educational goals. When an educator is forced to look at grade level and not academic level, they are not really meeting the student's needs.
We are speaking of the students who are not in SOL classes and have not had the prerequisites to attain those SOL standards. They are receiving an IEP/Special Diploma. With this in mind, I need to focus my efforts on skills that will aid them with self-help skills (i.e., cooking, personal hygiene, laundry, household chores); functional vocabulary (survival signs, grocery words, restaurant words/fast-food words, job words, community signs); functional writing (thank-you letters, personal information, expressive journals); functional math (money skills, basic addition and subtraction, measurement, time, calendars); functional science and social studies (animal care, plant care, weather, maps and globes, character education, holidays); and vocational skills (following directions, community jobs and expectations, time management).
I feel that with the focus on these extremely high standards my students will lose the skills that will help them be independent and thrive. Please take a look at the new VAAP guidelines put into place by the Virginia Department of Education. Ask yourself, if you had a child with significant cognitive disabilities, what would be important for them to learn?
Karen S. Molbert is a special education teacher in Spotsylvania County.