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New Rules for Testing Students With Disabilities Spark Concerns in Texas

Last week, I wrote about a Tulsa World article that outlined the challenges of assessing students with severe disabilities on state standardized tests. This week, The Dallas Morning News explores the same issue, writing about how some Texas students with severe disabilities will not be marked as proficient on the state's new standardized tests.

Texas is replacing its former TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills) program with the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR. The STAAR-Alternate program is for students with severe disabilities, and allows students to be tested on simpler tasks that correspond to academic standards. However, students who are tested on only the most basic tasks will not be counted as proficient under state and federal accountability standards.

That non-proficient rating will not affect the child, but it will affect the school. The article explains that the state created the rule to nudge teachers in the direction of creating challenging assessments for students with disabilities. Educators say that in some cases, time spent trying to get students to master the tests takes away from life-skills instruction. From the article:

For kids whose ability to understand is far below the norm, spending time on academics is time not spent on life skills, some teachers complain.

"STAAR-Alternate is just a small part of what I think they need to know," said Jessica Warner, a special education teacher for the Duncanville school district.

But some national experts on special education and accountability say that having tests that push harder than some teachers feel is appropriate is not a bad idea.
Multistate studies have shown that many students actually understand more than some teachers may think, said Lindsay Jones, senior director for policy and advocacy for the Council for Exceptional Children. And proper testing can help identify those students.

But reaching those students requires communications tools, technology and other resources that represent extra costs for budget-strapped educators, she acknowledged. "It's an extremely difficult population to assess," Jones said. A test that too many students are passing may be evidence that "it's a little easy and we aren't challenging our kids as much as we should," she said.

Experts on assessing students with disabilities have argued for years that these pupils often are able to master more academic content than they're given credit for, and the article gives an example of one such student.

But this story suggests that the issue will continue to be a struggle for students, parents, teachers and districts, particularly as states adapt to the Common Core State Standards (though Texas is among the few states that has not adopted the common core).

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