Growing pains

Three possible explanations for why students with special needs didn’t fare as well on PARCC

When state officials this week released new data showing how much students had grown academically year-to-year on state tests, one statistic jumped out.

The gap separating students with special needs from other students had grown dramatically, leaving educators and advocates searching for answers.

Colorado’s student growth report calculates how much students learn year-to-year compared to students who start in a similar place academically. Students with special needs not only lag behind other students, but this year’s data showed they are learning at a slower rate than two years ago.

Before we get to possible explanations, an important note about these students, who have individualized education plans that define goals and services each student should get.

Students have these plans for a variety of reasons. They include speech impediments, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and emotional disabilities. A very small number have cognitive disabilities, experts say.

That means the overwhelming majority of students with such plans should be just as likely to score well on standardized tests as their peers without special needs if they have the right help, experts say.

While state officials and experts we spoke with are concerned about this year’s results, most cautioned that it was too early to reach firm conclusions or know whether this is the start of a trend or an outlier.

Here are some possible explanations for the growing growth gap for students with special needs:

Students with individualized education plans may not have enough access to inclusive classrooms with the critical thinking they need to do well on tests (and in life).

With the adoption of the Common Core State Standards in English and math, teachers and students have been asked to make fundamental changes in the classroom.

A greater emphasis has been placed on critical thinking over rote memorization. Students are being asked to read longer and denser passages and cite evidence in written responses.

Students with disabilities aren’t getting that opportunity, experts say.

“Too often kids with disabilities just don’t have the opportunity to learn,” said Sheryl Lazarus, a senior research associate with the National Center for Education Outcomes, which focuses on underserved students. “The reading and writing (on the assessments) were real challenges. Students need the opportunity to learn the grade-level content. Once they do that, they’ll do much, much better on these assessments.”

A report Lazarus co-authored surveyed teachers in states that used the PARCC exams or another multi-state test, Smarter Balanced. It found:

  • Students with special needs were not used to reading long passages like those found on the tests.
  • Those same students were not used to writing extended responses and lacked basic computer skills.
  • They also had difficulty using evidence to justify their answers and lacked basic research skills.

Angela Denning, the state education department’s special education chief, said state monitoring found only about 60 percent of students with special needs spent 80 percent or more of their time in classrooms with the general student population.

That’s not enough, she said.

“My bet is that schools with small or no growth gaps have students with disabilities receiving good instruction in those core areas in the regular education classrooms” with help and instructional strategies tailored for them, she said.

Denver Public Schools, which has one of the largest growth gaps between students with disabilities and other students, is focusing more on including all students in regular classroom work. Ten schools are part of a new pilot program seeking to better incorporate students with disabilities in general classrooms.

The district is also training teachers to write better learning plans for students with special needs to include more data, and goals for improvement and meeting academic standards.

“We need to have our results translate to all kids,” said Josh Drake, DPS’s executive director for exceptional students.

Pam Bisceglia, a coordinator for AdvocacyDenver, which champions the rights of students with special needs, said both special education and general education teachers need more cross-training on how to better meet the needs of students regardless of what classroom they are in.

“There always has to be a shared responsibility to meeting kids’ needs,” she said.

While the new computer-based state tests have features meant to put students with special needs on a level playing field, that doesn’t mean students and teachers know how to use them.

The PARCC exams, which are mostly taken on computers, come with plenty of bells and whistles. A 200-plus page manual describes in detail what can be done to help students, including larger fonts, having passages read aloud and more.

“PARCC has tons of stuff built in for accommodations, but that doesn’t mean that’s better,” said Ann Morrison, an associate professor at the School of Education at the Metropolitan State University of Denver. “What we should look for is high degrees of ease of use … My sense about PARCC is that there is not an ease of use.”

Teacher and student frustrations with technology could put the results in question, Morrison said.

“Anxiety gets in the way of learning and demonstrating learning,” she said.

A PARCC spokeswoman said the group tests the tools used by students and is adding new ones. In 2016, PARCC included a function that allowed math problems to be read aloud in both English and Spanish, and in 2017 PARCC will offer a Braille version of the test.

Bisceglia said that while there was some confusion about how schools provided accommodations to students during PARCC’s first year, she heard of no complaints this year.

Kids with special needs opted out of the tests at a higher rate than their peers.

Colorado’s PARCC scores have been called into question because of the large number of students choosing not to take the tests in higher grades — mostly in high-performing schools.

Opt-out rates also are slightly higher for students with individualized education plans, state data show.

Derek Briggs, director of the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Assessment, Design, Research and Evaluation, suggested that within that group, students more likely to score well were the ones who skipped out.

“It’s a relatively small group,” Briggs said about the number of students with education plans. “It doesn’t take that much [to skew results].”

Denning, the state’s special education chief, said she’s asking an advisory council of parents and educators to examine why opt-out numbers are higher in the special education community.

Take Two

One year after TNReady collapse, Tennessee unveils plan to test online again

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier

After last year’s mostly failed transition to online testing, Tennessee will try again next year. And this time, state officials say they “feel confident” that the new online platform will work.

But unlike last year, the state will stagger the transition. All high schools will administer the test online in 2018. Middle and elementary schools will make the switch in 2019, though districts will have the option of administering the state’s test on paper to its youngest students.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced the new game plan for TNReady testing on Thursday after sharing the timeline with superintendents the day before.

“Given the challenges we experienced last year, we took a step back this year and have worked very closely with our vendor, Questar, to create an online product that is right for Tennessee,” McQueen wrote to superintendents. “We are proud of the progress that has been made and feel confident in the strength of the Nextera platform.”

Many districts are expected to get a head start and use the option to administer the high school test this spring. McQueen reported that more than half of the state’s high schools participated in online practice tests last fall, and that feedback was “generally very positive.”

Districts have until Feb. 15 to decide whether to take this year’s test online, and testing will start on April 17.

McQueen has said repeatedly that Tennessee is committed to transitioning to online testing, even after its platform collapsed last year on the first day of testing. The test maker later acknowledged that its platform did not have enough servers for the volume of students online as most of the state tried to make the shift for all grades.

The commissioner reiterated the state’s commitment this week. “It is our responsibility to ensure Tennessee students are prepared to meet the demands of postsecondary and the workforce, and online readiness is a part of that effort,” she wrote. “… Online is the future for our students.”

However, McQueen said that the transition plan isn’t set in stone.

We will continue to look at proof points along the way to be sure we are setting up districts and schools for success using the online platform,” she wrote.

Last year’s failed online rollout was followed by the test maker’s inability to deliver printed test materials, prompting McQueen to cancel tests for grades 3-8 and fire North Carolina-based Measurement Inc.

This year’s test has several differences from 2016:

  • It was designed by Questar, a Minnesota-based testing company that Tennessee hired last July;
  • It will take place during a single testing window, in April 17 to May 5, rather than also having testing in February.
  • It will be slightly shorter, with shorter sections.

breaking

‘ILEARN’ test would replace ISTEP in 2019 under House GOP plan

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

A key Republican lawmaker is calling for Indiana’s next state test to be known as “ILEARN,” finally abolishing the hated ISTEP in time for the 2018-19 school year.

But the new test, should the plan move forward and become law, might not look that different to students and teachers.

Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, filed House Bill 1003 in the Indiana General Assembly Wednesday setting out details for a new state testing system, whose name stands for “Indiana’s Learning Evaluation Assessment Readiness Network.” Behning championed the so-called “kill ISTEP” bill last spring, which came out of complaints about the test’s history of scoring glitches and delays.

Behning’s bill is the first to outline a plan to replace the test, and it still faces a number of legislative hurdles. But as House Education Committee chairman, Behning has considerable influence.

“ILEARN” would be similar to recommendations released late last year by a committee of lawmakers and educators charged with helping create a new test. That committee called for mostly tweaks to the ISTEP testing system, not an overhaul as some educators had favored.

His plan would include a few changes. In addition to continuing to test students in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school in math and English, the bill would require Indiana schools to give high school students a “nationally recognized” college or career readiness test. That test could be an exam for Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes, a college entrance exam, or another test approved by the Indiana State Board of Education.

The bill would also have the state exams given in one testing period at the end of the year, rather than the current two periods in late winter and spring.

In order to graduate, the state would go back to requiring high school students to pass end-of-course assessments in English, Algebra I and science, not a 10th-grade test like what the state introduced in 2016.

Tests in social studies would also no longer be required.

The bill would also require that scores be returned to the Indiana State Board of Education by July 1 of the year the test was given. It also says the Indiana Department of Education would be able to make rules that encourage Indiana teachers to grade the writing questions.

Originally, Behning called for ISTEP to formally end after it was given in 2017, but because of the challenges of creating a new test in such a short time window, he and fellow Republicans in the Senate have said the current ISTEP needs to stick around for another year or so. His plan would have ILEARN given for the first time in 2019.

Below, find some of our top stories over the past year on the ever-changing exam, where we explain how Indiana got to this point. You can find all of Chalkbeat’s testing coverage here.