Thursday, August 20, 2015

Alternative Assessments 101

So maybe you're a new special educator, and you've been told students on your caseload are taking alternative assessments (most likely it's some random acronym specific to your state - mine happens to be LAA1). Perhaps you're a parent who has a student in the RTI or evaluation process, or has an IEP and you want to know more about the "alternate education track" people keep mentioning. Or maybe, just maybe, you're a general ed. teacher, who just wants to know more about all those crazy acronyms you hear your SpEd department talking about. Either way, you've come to the right place!

This post is meant to demystify some of the confusion, and provide some resources for educators and parents alike.

Just a little background: when I became a special ed teacher, coming from the gen. ed classroom, in the middle of a school year, I was told my students were taking this LAA1 test, but I had no idea what this test was, or how to prepare my kids for it. That's kinda like saying to a math teacher, "teach some kind of math, your kids will be tested on it and your job performance is based on how they do." With so much they needed to learn, I was at a loss for how to hone on the key skills to ensure my students would be successful. So, with limited information, I turned to trusty Google and my states DOE website to find more information.

This is just a bit of the information I've gained since then. I hope you find it helpful!

Part One: What ARE Alternate Assessments?

With the implementation of Common Core, there are TONS of blog posts floating around about curriculum mapping (a fancy term for your year long plans), and how to fit all the content required for success on Common Core standardized testing in one year. It's hard to walk around any school and not hear about the assessments: PARCC, Smarter Balance, or EOC.

For those of us in the special education world, we are not immune to testing, but just on a different track. Many (but I am pretty sure by now ALL) states have adopted alternate assessments for students with significant disabilities, and usually result in these students receiving a certificate of completion, as opposed to the traditional high school diploma.

Students on these track are therefore not required to successfully master the standards of the Common Core standards, but alternative standards, that are still aligned with academic standards, but the complexity level is modified to best support the levels of students with disabilities. The idea is to measure, track, and build upon what are students are able to do, and in the best case scenario, ensure they have developed the functional skills to transition successfully to an independent life.

Who Takes Alternate Assessments? 
Not every student with an IEP will take alternate assessments. This is the number one question I get from parents when their child first enters the RTI and evaluation process. In addition to requiring parental consent, each state also has a set of criteria for students that must meet in order to take alternate assessments. Having an IEP does NOT mean a student will not graduate with a high school diploma. I can''t stress this enough, because I have seen so many parents and teachers hesitate to report concerns, for this very reason. An IEP is meant to HELP students succeed in school and graduate in the traditional way.

Alternate assessments are reserved for students with significant cognitive disabilities. Each state has their own individual criteria, but parental consent to take alternate assessments is required in all cases, documented on the IEP. Taking alternate assessments will be outlined in a student's IEP, and a parent or guardian is not required to sign if they do not agree with an IEP. To find out your state's criteria, I would suggest visiting your states Department of Education website, and searching 'special education alternate assessment'.

What are Students Tested on? 
That's the million dollar question, and unfortunately I don't have a short and sweet answer for that. Because there are no national alternative standards, like Common Core, each state is still left up to it's own devices. For example, my state, Louisiana, alternate assessment, is based on what are called 'Alternative Extended Standards', basically alternative standards. My home state of North Carolina uses 'Extended Common Core.' I've looked at many other states and seen similar standards aligned to their state-wide alternate assessment. The concept behind these alternative standards, is that these standards are aligned with state standards, although modified in complexity level and/or how information is presented and/or how students may respond to answers.

What About Common Core? How Does that Play into Alternate Assessments?
Right now, states alternate assessments may or may not be aligned to Common Core standards. Just looking at my states alternate standards, they are not directly aligned to Common Core, but to the old state standards. In other words, standards for students with significant disabilities hasn't yet caught up to the standards for gen. ed students. This also means, just from looking at a handful of states alternate standards, that the rigor varies dramatically for students with significant disabilities. For example, some standards require 5th grade students with significant cognitive disabilities to extend a simple ABBA patter, while that same student, could cross a state line and suddenly be expected to round decimals to the hundedths place.

Just as the Common Core movement shook up the educational scene in order to uniform the level of educational rigor on a national level, I think it's time that ALL standards for students, even those with the most significant cognitive disabilities, be addressed in this same way. Even students with the most severe disabilities are entitled to be held to rigorous standards. Long gone are the days of assuming 'they just won't get it'.

Even students with the most severe disabilities are entitled to be held to rigorous standards. Long gone are the days of assuming 'they just won't get it'. Share on Twitter

What if instead of each state operating on their own, there was a national set of alternative standards for our babies with significant and/or severe disabilities? What if these national set of alternative standards then allowed for evidence-based curriculum to be made that harnessed the research of research based strategies and national funding? What if special educators had more research-based curriculum that was aligned to these standards that prepared their students for a successful transition to work and independent living?

I set out to find out if I was the only one wondering about this issue, and luckily, there are two organizations that are currently working on this very topic.

National Center and State Collaborative has created Core Content Connectors, that are directly aligned to Common Core Standards. They are also working on a Alternate Assessment to measure student mastery of those alternative standards, AND they even have curriculum modules in the works! There are some states who have already adopted Core Content Connectors as their alternative standards, and I'm happy to see that my state, Louisiana, is currently considering adopting them.

There's also Dynamic Learning Maps Consortium, which has created Essential Elements, another set of alternate standards designed for students with significant cognitive disabilities. They are another group seeking to align alternate standards to Common Core standards, and create a more unified alternative assessment that can be used among several states. There are several states already using these as their alternative standards.

For my next post on this series, I'll share my step by step process for how I use alternate standards and student IEP goals to development a curriculum map/pacing guide for instruction.

I'd love to hear what alternative standards your state is using for students with severe or significant disabilities, your experience in working with those standards, and how they influence your curriculum planning throughout the year. Share in the comments!

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