The wrong yardstick for special-ed students

November 13, 2006|By Marcy Myers

A tragedy is occurring in many of Maryland's special-education classrooms.

In compliance with the federal No Child Left Behind law, the state requires that all special-education students take some form of the Maryland State Assessment, which is used to measure student success and is ultimately responsible for determining if a school has made "adequate yearly progress." Schools that do not make such progress are eventually taken over by the state.

For students with severe special needs, an alternative test - the Alternate Maryland State Assessment - has been created to satisfy No Child Left Behind requirements. The purpose of the alternative test is to measure the progress of students such as mine.

And herein is the problem. The federal government is requiring Maryland (and every other state) - and, in turn, the county where I work and special-ed teachers such as me - to spend inordinate amounts of time (about two to three months last year, more this year) teaching multi-handicapped students material that is totally irrelevant and in no way aligns with the yearly goals and objectives on their individual education programs (IEPs) but does align with the alternative assessment. That test fails to take into account the students' true needs.

To add insult to injury, my school is in danger of being taken over by the state because, among other reasons, these neediest students have not passed the assessment.

My students have significant cognitive impairment. Most do not speak. We spend two days a week in the community, learning and practicing functional-living skills.

My students' lessons address grooming and health and the most rudimentary social skills - for example, not pulling or mouthing objects from store shelves, not touching other people and not reaching for food off the plates of others. Some students have IEP goals pertaining to toileting.

All my students lack the skills and concepts needed to communicate. My most important goal is to enable them to understand how to communicate, so they can function better in society and enjoy an enhanced quality of life.

Instead, the Alternate Maryland State Assessment requires teachers to write 10 reading goals and 10 math goals for each student. Before writing these goals, teachers are required to read and follow all the instructions outlined in a 254-page manual. All these goals must align with those contained in the Maryland Voluntary State Curriculum - misnamed because following it is required, not voluntary. Furthermore, each of these goals must be created to align with the student's corresponding state curriculum goals at his or her chronological grade level. The goals for my eighth-grade students must come from the state curriculum goals written for eighth-graders with no disabilities.

Although this state curriculum is followed by the general population, my students follow a different one, the Functional Life Skills Curriculum, which addresses far more basic needs and such areas as career and vocational training, community access, personal management, communication and decision-making, interpersonal relationships and applied academics.

In effect, the teacher is required to write reading and math goals, adapted from a set of objectives written for students who are not cognitively impaired, for students who, in some cases, cannot speak, count to three, respond when their names are called or use the toilet.

Although it is understood that goals can and almost always will be adapted from those written for the general population, it is illogical to assess these students using reading and math goals as primary indicators of their progress. It is a tremendous disservice to the students and to the teachers dedicated to their education.

The parents of my students are, as am I, outraged by the loss of learning time for their children because of the requirements of this mandatory assessment. One parent has asked for an exemption for her child. Although a process for obtaining exemptions is mentioned in the state manual, it appears that students who are exempt still earn a failing mark on the test when calculating data for their school's final test scores.

Furthermore, all special-education students are assessed on a regular basis. They are graded four times a year based on the progress they have made toward the specific - and relevant - goals outlined in their IEPs. These goals are written by an "IEP team" consisting of the parents, the student (if he or she is aware of any part of this process), the classroom teacher, the special-education supervisor, a school administrator and all relevant specialists (such as a speech and language pathologist, occupational therapist, physical therapist and school psychologist).

This issue, and similar ones, are being addressed by teachers and officials nationwide, but I no longer can wait to once again spend most of my time teaching my students what they truly need.

Marcy Myers is a special-education teacher in Montgomery County. Her e-mail is mlm0555@aol.com.

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