Some California educators say the state’s students with the most severe cognitive disabilities will not have the same opportunity this spring to have their learning assessed as other students taking the Common Core-aligned assessments.
Approximately 39,000 of the state’s students with cognitive disabilities that are too severe for them to function or live safely on their own are eligible to take the new California Alternate Assessment this spring, according to the California Department of Education. However, some educators are uncertain how well the new assessment will work.
In particular, they say the assessment was developed hastily and distributed to teachers with no time to prepare themselves or their students for it. They also have no assurance that the test will measure what their students are learning in the classroom. They say that’s because the alternate assessment is based on simplified adaptations of the Common Core State Standards that have not been formally adopted by the state and disseminated in advance for teachers to plan their instruction.
The new assessment is a field test, meaning the results will be used to build a valid scored test for next year; it will not be scored individually. Its limited scope worries some assessment experts, who say it does not include enough questions to develop a valid test.
The computer-based California alternate assessment includes 30 questions, half in English language arts and half in math for grades 3 through 8 and 11, developed by the Educational Testing Service. It will be testing eligible students’ knowledge of these subject areas based on adaptations of the Common Core State Standards, according to Lily Roberts, the interim director of assessment development and administration at the Department of Education.
To have any more questions on the field test, Roberts said, would be “an overload” for the students and take too much time.
But some experts question the decision to limit the number of test questions.
“They’re violating all the principles of putting together a field test,” said Doug McRae, a retired educational test measurement specialist who served as an educational testing company executive in charge of design and development of K-12 tests widely used across the country. “The rule of thumb is to double the number of (test) items you need,” McRae said, because inevitably data from the test will indicate that some questions should be revised or discarded.
Chris Domaleski, a senior associate at the National Center for Improvement of Educational Assessment, agrees that it is typical to use more items on a field test than are planned for a fully operational assessment to make sure there are enough items that are usable.
Beyond the test design, the materials to prepare schools for the assessment arrived late. Michelle Cunha, student achievement coordinator for the Santa Ana Unified School District, said typically when she meets with staff about new assessments, she’s armed with answers to anticipated questions well in advance. But that didn’t happen with the California Alternate Assessment, she said.
“We were all in the dark and asking questions,” she said. The notice about the practice tests for the assessment did not land in her inbox until late March – just two weeks before the testing window began, she said.
Valerie Shedd, the director of special education at Garden Grove Unified, said the late release of materials was “disruptive” to teachers who usually have their schedules planned out a month in advance. The delay meant teachers were given only a week’s notice that they had to take an hour-long assessment training.
Shedd also said the delay in obtaining materials meant students had less time to practice. “We wanted them to be able to practice more than one time and not be in a place where the technology was stressing them out,” she said.
“At a minimum, it would be advisable to provide access to some sample items that reflect the various ways in which content will be presented and students will interact with that content,” Domaleski said. If students are not given a sufficient amount of time to become comfortable with the test format and technology, he said, it is uncertain how accurately the results would reflect students’ ability.
Initially, the California Department of Education planned to give a field test to all eligible students, according to a letter written by then-Interim Deputy Superintendent Keric Ashley. But on July 30, 2014, the National Center and State Collaborative, which had piloted alternate assessments in California last spring and fall, pulled out of the project.
Collaborative Project Director Rachel Quenemoen wrote to Ashley that the federal grant it received for the project did not include Ashley’s request for the field test. Providing a field test would jeopardize the collaborative’s ability to deliver an official, fully operational assessment in the 2014-15 school year, Quenemoen said.
“Getting that news at the end of the July, we had to scramble to get a field test of our own,” Ashley said.
As a result, the California Department of Education had less than nine months to come up with an alternative field test for students with the most severe cognitive disabilities, and materials were delivered late to teachers. Roberts said the department selected test questions that were developed by the Educational Testing Service and vetted them through focus groups with special education experts.
The short turnaround time also translated to much fewer accommodations for disabilities than those built into the Common Core-aligned assessments for less disabled students and students without disabilities.
Roberts acknowledged that with the short time to build the alternate assessment, the department was unable to match many of the accommodations on the Common Core-aligned assessments developed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. The alternate assessment lacks a “text-to-speech” feature that reads the test aloud, a braille program that can link with a braille embossing machine, closed captioned text, glossaries translated into several languages, and videos of interpreters signing in American Sign Language.
Some educators who work with special education students are concerned the accommodations don’t match those on the Smarter Balanced assessment.
“Our children are being left behind,” said Sam Neustadt, assistant superintendent of the Solano County Special Education Local Plan Area, a regional organization that develops plans for providing special education services. “It’s just wrong. (These students) should have the same opportunities as our other students,” he said.
Students who take the alternate assessment work one-on-one with a school aide who helps by reading aloud, signing or typing in a student’s responses.
But there are deeper issues that concern educators about the assessment. “We don’t even know if it’s going to match up with what we’re doing in the classroom,” said Shedd of Garden Grove Unified.
Jennifer Gaviola, director of the Fresno County Special Education Local Plan Area, agrees, saying teachers have had years to prepare for the assessments for general education and less disabled students. And she said those students’ knowledge of math and English is being measured by the same standards on the test and in the classroom. But the more severely disabled population “was not considered when making the shift to the Common Core State Standards,” she said.
Federal law requires California to assess all of its students, including special education students if they are capable of taking assessments. For educators working with these students, the reason for assessment is clear: “To me it’s an equity issue, a civil right,” said Frank Donovan, executive director of the Greater Anaheim Special Education Local Plan Area. Donovan said special education students need to be tested to see how they compare with their peers in California and in other states.
“We need to know that those kids are being taught the core curriculum,” said Catherine Conrado, director of the Sonoma County Special Education Local Plan Area. “They have the right to have high expectations of them as well even if they’re kids with severe disabilities.”