Let me start by saying that I am a big believer in Alternate Assessment. I think it’s important when the government passes laws like the No Child Left Behind Act that ALL truly means ALL. Now what I think of by all is probably different from what most think of as all. Most people do not know that students like mine exist; they are 1% of 1% of the population. These are students whose learning does not look like other 6th, 7th, and 8th graders.
What pains me, particularly in New York State, is how we completely miss the point of alternate assessment when we start drafting guidelines that only include that students will “identify,” or “select,” to demonstrate their knowledge. My students cannot do that. But that does not mean we deny them access to academic knowledge.
In my first year as a lead teacher, I had the pleasure of working with six high school students with a range of multiple disabilities and complex healthcare needs. The warnings came from the beginning of the year, “watch out you’re going to have to do High School MCAS,” because of how demanding the paperwork would be. I never expected how much it would improve how I collect data and look at adapting materials for my students.
MCAS-Alt is Massachusetts’ alternate assessment. Each state is required by the No Child Left Behind Act (2001) to administer some form of alternate assessment to students with special needs who cannot participate in traditional exams. The goal is to demonstrate that all students have access to the general education curriculum. Students should have age appropriate access, which means they should be accessing material that is based on their chronological grade level. For example, you might thinking a 14 year old with multiple disabilities would love reading Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar (for the 14th year of their life) because its simple and has bright colors, but really they are just as interested in the pictures and vocabulary in a non-fiction book on the Wright Brothers designing the first airplane.
After reviewing Massachusetts’ Science Standards, I decided that an interdisciplinary unit on "Inventions" would encompass a wide-range of motivating, multi-sensory learning experiences while collecting data for MCAS-Alt. What’s different than New York state is that I was collecting data on my students behaviors that enabled them to interact with grade-level content, rather than completing State-designed tasks. For one student, it was whether he was independently activating a switch to turn on a battery we constructed out of lemons. Another student was working on controlling her arm movements so that she could collect the materials we needed to construct the battery or other simple circuits that we built with the Life Skills’ teacher. We took field trips to a small local airport lead by a student’s father and the Boston Science Museum, where we a got a lesson in static electricity and the biggest smile I have ever seen from a student who is cortically blind and has very limited control over any body movements. Measuring their engagement and emerging communication skills easily aligned with their IEP goals. At the end of the unit, I constructed portfolios full of pictures and data charts that had meaning.
Students with complex healthcare needs just do not have time to waste on meaningless assessment tasks; two of my students passed away in less than a year after I taught this unit. I am at peace knowing that I gave them the fullest academic experience and at their funerals their parents specifically mentioned these scientific adventures. This is the power of alternate assessment when done right.
I’m sharing with you my experience with alternate assessment, because it was my hope that with the Common Core State Standards 50 states would take the opportunity to come together, rather than running in different directions and wasting energy doing the same alignments 50 times over. I will continue to share with you as I do more research into where alternate assessment has been and where it is going, including who should be participating. To start, here are New York State’s current guidelines. Two consortia have formed to design a common alternate assessment aligned to the Common Core, but New York State seems determined to continue to go it on its own judging from its current website on alternate assessment. Disappointingly, the draft now posted on the State Department of Ed website looks exactly like the Alternate Assessment (NYSAA) from previous years.
I’ll be back with more on this soon. Please comment below and share your own experiences with Alt Assessment.