Common Core test for students with disabilities raises concerns

Lately, special-education teacher Rachael Goeler has been wondering how her 17-year-old student who cannot count to 10 will be able to write an equation on a state test.

This year, some 10,400 city students with severe disabilities, like those Goeler teaches, are being assessed for the first time on their mastery of a modified version of the Common Core standards, which the state adopted in 2010 and began testing other students on last school year. Students in this group take the state’s alternate assessment instead of the annual standardized tests or Regents exams that most students take.

Goeler, like most special-education teachers, believes in the spirit of the testing requirement — that all students should be held to high standards.

But she and others worry that even modified versions of the more rigorous Common Core standards remain unrealistic for students who face profound educational challenges — such as autism, cerebral palsy, emotional disorders, or multiple disabilities — and who may still be learning to care for themselves or to communicate.

The state teachers union raised the issue last month in a letter to the state, urging it to better adapt the new standards for students with severe disabilities.

“Tell me how I’m supposed to adapt a ninth-grade standard for a student who can’t eye gaze,” Goeler told State Education Commissioner John King at a public forum last week.

Teachers’ concern about the disconnect between the tough academic standards and their students’ needs is longstanding, but it has been ratcheted up by the new test, which will factor into teacher evaluations.

Both the state and city teachers unions say teachers were not properly prepared for the changes to the alternate assessment, which requires teachers to create many of the test questions or tasks themselves. They say the changes have sowed confusion and monopolized teachers’ attention.

Goeler teaches high school-aged students at P.S. Q233 in Queens, a combined elementary and high school that is a part of District 75, the citywide special-education district. She said that after long nights creating Common Core-aligned test questions, she has little time left over to plan lessons on the everyday skills her students also must learn.

“I go to work and I feel like I failed my students that day,” she said.

In a reply sent Tuesday to the state teachers union, King listed ways the state would step up support for teachers who give the alternate assessment. But he noted that federal law requires special-education students to be tested on less-complex versions of grade-level standards.

“The challenge isn’t whether students can understand these concepts, but how can we make them accessible to all students,” said Ken Wagner, the state’s associate education commissioner, in an interview Tuesday.

Besides being newly aligned to the Common Core standards, the test design also changed this year. (The social studies and science sections of the test have some new design elements, but not standards, since the Common Core standards have so far only been introduced in English and math.)

For example, the test now measures how much students learn between the time they take a baseline and a final assessment, rather than how much they retain across three separate test periods, as was the case before. Also, students are tested on more math and English standards (up from two to five) and teachers have far less flexibility when deciding how their students will demonstrate those skills.

Despite these changes, several teachers said they were not trained on the new assessment until October — during the baseline administration period, which runs from Sept. 30 until mid-November. They added that in a few instances, the trainers were stumped about how teachers could turn specific new standards into appropriate test items.

Teachers then had to design test questions or tasks for students to demonstrate the skills laid out in a modified version of the new standards. In some cases, they had to make multiple versions of tasks to meet different students’ needs or create tasks tied to standards from several grades, since their classrooms contain students of various ages.

Julie Cavanagh, a special-education teacher at P.S. 15 in Brooklyn, said she skipped lunch for several weeks this fall as she created more than 100 separate tasks for the nine students in her class who take the alternate assessment. Since her students vary in age, she had to develop tasks for the third through fifth-grade standards.

Each task must be carefully crafted to assess the skill exactly as the state describes it — otherwise, the graders could rule that a student did not prove mastery and so should not receive a score.

For example, a modified fourth-grade science standard asks students to gather tools for an investigation. A valid teacher-created test worksheet would not simply ask students to circle the right tools, Cavanagh said, but to “gather” cutout images of the tools and glue them to the sheet. Such subtle distinctions can trip up novice teachers, she said.

Meanwhile, the teachers said that much of the time devoted to creating and administering the test would be better spent working on skills students need to function in school and life, such as grooming, using money or recognizing key words.

“It’s consuming a huge swath of my time,” Cavanagh said, “that I could be spending more effectively serving my kids.”

Gloria Corsino, president of the citywide council that represents District 75 parents, has two students who receive special-education services. She said the alternate assessment misses much of the important work her children do at school, such as learning to select and pay for items at the grocery.

The test is “disengaged from the skills they’re supposed to be teaching in school,” she said, which are “functional, everyday skills.”

New York State United Teachers complained in their letter to the education department that the new alternate assessment “has resulted in confusion in the field” and that it does not reflect the “actual program of instruction” in classrooms where students have severe disabilities. It also noted that the state has said it will not set the benchmarks that students must meet to pass the new test until next June, after testing is complete.

The city’s United Federation of Teachers plans to send a similar notice to the state asking it to develop a more practical version of the standards for students with severe disabilities, said Carmen Alvarez, the union’s vice president of special education.

“It was a rush to show they could do Common Core for everyone,” Alvarez said, “without thinking about who these students really are.”

State education officials said that more than 100 teachers had helped the state and a contractor distill the Common Core standards into main ideas and performance-descriptors specifically for students with severe disabilities, which became the basis of the new assessment. And they said the large testing period — the final assessments are due Feb. 7 — gives teachers time to troubleshoot.

In Tuesday’s reply to the NYSUT letter, King said the state would answer teachers’ questions about the alternate assessments within 24 hours of receiving them, publish model student test work, create a parent brochure, and consider changes to the testing period for next year.

City education officials said that in addition to teacher trainings, district-wide workshops were held where teachers reviewed the alternate-assessment tasks their colleagues created.

“Aligning our curriculum and assessments to the Common Core underscores our commitment to holding all of our students — including students with disabilities — to high standards and giving them the support they need so that they graduate well prepared for college, careers, and independent living,” Barbara Joseph, District 75’s deputy superintendent, said in a statement.