Tomorrow Is Too Long to Wait for Inclusion

Think Inclusive Podcast #011: What Does Alternate Assessment Have To Do With Inclusion? with Debbie Taub

Think Inclusive Podcast #011: What Does Alternate Assessment Have To Do With Inclusion?

Recording from my living room in beautiful Marietta, GA…you are listening to the Think Inclusive Podcast Episode (011) brought to you by Brookes Publishing Company. I am your host Tim Villegas. Today I will be speaking with Debbie Taub, an expert in the field of special education alternate assessment. For those of you who don’t know, alternate assessment is the state test or portfolio that is administered or collected for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities – around 1-2 percent of all students in a typical school district.

I had the pleasure of visiting with her one evening in February of this year. Debbie and I discuss what exactly is alternate assessment and what it has to do with inclusion. At the end of the podcast, Debbie lists some resources that may be helpful for any educator who wants to know more about modifying grade-level curriculum for students with significant disabilities. All in all we had a great conversation.
So without further ado…Let’s get to the Think Inclusive Podcast…Thanks for listening.

Keystone Assesment Resources

National Alternate Assessment Center

Council for Exceptional Children


Dynamic Learning Maps – DLM is responsible for developing an Alternate Assessment based on the Common Core State Standards.

National Center and State Collaborative – NCSC is responsible for developing an Alternate Assessment based on the Common Core State Standards.

Assessment Services Supporting English Learners Through Technology Systems – ASSETS is developing an Assessment for English Language Learners based on the Common Core State Standards.

Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers – PARCC is developing a Common Core State Standards Assessment.

Smarter Balanced – Smarter Balanced is developing a Common Core State Standards Assessment.

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The Role of Special Education in a Democracy

The Role of Special Education in a Democracy

Photo Credit: Sara/Flickr

Reflections on Ravitch’s Reign of Error from a Special Ed Teacher

By Beth Brady

The past few years I’ve been wondering: When did being a teacher make me such an awful, greedy person in the eyes of our country? Thanks to being active on Twitter, I finally got a better understanding of what has been going on recently in education policy and how Obama’s Race to the Top has led to the proliferation of charters, even more high-stakes testing and the Common Core Learning Standards. It wasn’t just in my head; there was really something going on, a systematic pushback against public education. Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error put the current policy problems that educators face together in one place with research and solutions. For educators, it has always been important to be educated advocates for our students. For our students, we are models of what it means to be engaged citizens, and in order to fulfill that role, we need works like Reign of Error to keep us informed.

The problems that Ravitch identifies and solutions she offers are not new, but it is refreshing to be reminded of why education policy matters so much in this country. Our education system is the bedrock of our democratic society. There’s a reason why when the rest of the world seems to be erupting right now, we continue to have civil protests and dialogue; although Congress can’t seem to get along, we are not a nation that rushes to take up arms.

This year, in the race to improve my students’ performance and demonstrate that I truly am a highly effective teacher, I had forgotten why I chose to be a public school teacher in the first place. I’m grateful to Ravitch for the reminder of John Dewey’s work:

The public schools have taught us how to be one society, not a collection of separate enclaves, divided by race, language and culture. They have contributed directly to the growth of a large middle class and a dynamic society. Our nation’s public schools have been a mighty engine of opportunity and equality. They still are.” (Ravitch, 2013, p.323)

As a teacher of students with multiple disabilities, I had a light bulb moment when I remembered that school is not just about reading, math and showing that my students can access the Common Core, but about being citizens. Schools prepare students to become contributors to society, not just academic scholars.

I’m sad to admit I had been sucked into the accountability vortex. With New York’s new teacher evaluation system in place, part of which uses the Danielson’s Framework, I was focused on using this framework to prove how meaningful my work is and that my students can learn.

You see, since most of my students are non-verbal, use wheelchairs, are dependent for all their care needs, and have health impairments, I am often asked, “Well, what do you teach them?” Often the root of the question comes from the thinking that if they’re not learning academics, why are we paying taxes for them to go to school?  Wouldn’t these needy (and expensive) children best be served in a cheaper setting (i.e., minus teacher salary), such as daycare or a hospital?

It makes me frustrated that people don’t naturally value the important place that children with multiple disabilities have in our society of diverse human beings. But instead of trying to explain that, my best answer in the past had been to explain how my students are learning, although it might not look like traditional learning, and that we are accessing the same general education curriculum that “typical” students are learning, but in a different way.  We are focusing on the essential skills they need to learn, such as communication, choice-making, cause & effect, and joint attention.

But I have to admit that the question made me question what I knew was right. I became fixated on proving my students’ worth with data collection sheets and Common Core activities, which distracted me from the 1:1 instruction I knew my students needed in their individual, developmentally appropriate goals. (I say Common Core, because before this push I never felt such pressure to consistently show achievement that was aligned to the NY State Standards besides completing annual Alternate Assessments.)

So as I spend my summer days reflecting on my classroom last year and thinking about improvements for next year, it was a welcome reminder from Ravitch that I should stop running myself ragged just because my students aren’t valued by high-stakes tests and they don’t fit in a mold where I can have them pump out projects that show they understand the Common Core standards.

The reason my students deserve to be in school as much as traditional students who are learning to read, do algebra, and explain historic events, is because its not about the content, its about what all students are learning by doing these learning activities together in a common space. There is a reason we have public schools in this country.

…They have enabled people from different walks of life to learn from one another, to study together, play together, plan together, and recognize their common humanity. More than any other institution in our society, the public schools enable the rising generation to exchange ideas, to debate, to disagree, and to take into account the view of others in making decisions.” (Ravitch, 2013, p.323)

This is what I teach my students. By working with them to communicate, interact with peers, identify their wants and needs, my goals are no different from a general education teacher.

The essential mission of the public schools are not merely to prepare workers for the global workforce but to prepare citizens with the minds, hearts, and characters to sustain our democracy into the future.” (Ravitch, 2013, p.325)

In our drive to create college- and career-ready graduates, let us not forget that public schools were founded to create an educated citizenry, not just workers. Just because not all students will have a job one day or even be able to live independently does not mean that they are not an important part of our society.

Additionally, students with special needs bring diversity to schools that accurately reflect the world outside of schools. What better space than a classroom of students who have such a different experience of life than a “typical” child to help students learn “to take into account the view of others?”

As communities grew, parents and concerned citizens realized that educating children was a shared public responsibility, not a private one…For many years, the public schools were known as common schools, because they were part of the public commons. Like parks, libraries, roads and the police, they were institutions that belonged to the whole people…But most people understood that paying for the education of the community’s children was a civic duty, an investment in the future, in citizens who would grow up and become voters and take their place in society.” (Ravitch, 2013, p.322)

At the end of the day, schools are in the business of making better people for a better world.  Whether we teach math or communication, as educators we serve a valuable role in our democratic society. I know that a large part of my pride in our society comes from the strong public education that I received. So, for this special educator, there is no more renewing feeling than realizing that my specialized teaching skill helps me and my students, support staff, and families become stronger, educated citizens of our American democratic society.

List of Works Cited

Ravitch, D. (2013). Reign of Error. New York, NY: Knopf.

What do you think the role of special education is in the United States? Share with us in the comments section below!
Beth BradyBeth Brady is currently a middle school special education teacher in the New York City Public Schools, after beginning her career in Boston. She works with learners who have an array of multiple disabilities and her particular interests are in the area of communication, alternate assessment, deafblindness, and teacher preparation. Connect with her on Twitter @bradylobeth.

Limits Not Included: Two Posts You Need To Read


About a year ago, I struck up an email conversation with a fellow educator of students with significant disabilities named Sharon. We went back and forth about the benefits and challenges of including students with severe disabilities in general education. I think the conversation stretched us both. No matter what side of the fence you fall on the philosophy of inclusive education, it is an incredibly nuanced discussion. Recently, my email partner reached out to me and shared that she had started a blog about the experiences with being an inclusion minded teacher for students with multiple disabilities. They were so good…I wanted to share them with you and encourage everyone follow her blog, Limits Not Included. I suspect there will be more to come.

1) Rationing Time In this post, Sharon expresses her concern about functional communication training for students with significant disabilities in inclusive classrooms. Watch the ten minute video and see if you notice anything that may be missing.

In the classroom, time is, always, our most limited resource, and if students are receiving one service or participating in one activity, it means that they are not receiving another service or participating in another activity. That is the same argument used by proponents of full inclusion for why all related services should be push-in, so that students do not lose access to the instruction and peer access available in the general education environment. But that coin has another side, and those students *are* losing access to time spent in direct instruction of specific skills. And I’m worried that’s time we can’t afford to lose.

This video, of a young lady who has been fully included, was touted as evidence of the benefit of full inclusion for the development of real meaningful social relationships at a webinar I recently attended.

Did you notice what was missing? Jocelyn’s mother was interviewed. Jocelyn’s friends were interviewed. Jocelyn was not. Everyone else spoke about what they *thought* Jocelyn wanted/thought/believed. They don’t know. Because they can’t ask her. Why? As far as we can tell from this video, Jocelyn has no formal communication system (not even a yes/no.) For all we know, Jocelyn wishes these girls would leave her alone and only tolerates them to make her mother happy. We don’t know. We can’t ask Jocelyn.

And that’s what worries me about full inclusion for students like Jocelyn – and for the students I teach. I worry that their limited classroom time will be focused on social integration and on access skills that make them part of the classroom instead of on developing meaningful functional communication systems that will help them create independent lives for themselves as adults.

Listen very carefully to the voices of non-speaking self-advocates. Their intelligence was realized by others after someone taught them how to use a communication system and they were able to communicate their desire to learn (or what they had already learned.) Access to education is nothing without a system to communicate what you know. If we are going to implement full inclusion, we have allocate the time and resources to develop functional communication skills from the very beginning. And for our older students who have not had access to the communication and academic instruction they should have before now, for whatever reason, we have to recognize that our number one priority has to be communication – and that takes time.

2) Assessing Our Place In this post, Sharon shares her opinion about what alternate assessment is really about in relation to students with severe and multiple disabilities.

The controversy over state and national assessments, the common core, and the place of students with disabilities within that structure is a loud and large debate on which everyone has an opinion and everyone knows best.

I don’t know best, but I do have an opinion, which I would like to share.

The MCAS-alt (Massachusetts’s alternate assessment protocol for students who are unable to take the state test, even with accommodations) may not be a valid, or even meaningful, test of student progress toward meeting grade level standards. However, it is an important requirement of all students educational program because it requires teachers, for 40-90 lessons out of the school year, to provide at least some academic instruction to all students, regardless of perceived “ability.”

These are the teachers, and some of them have been my colleagues, who are inordinately proud of themselves for keeping their students safe and happy. They feel that is proof that they are doing a good job. I can’t help but wonder if they are familiar with the difference between the job description for babysitter and the job description for teacher – and which one they think they are doing?

These teachers truly believe, and have convinced many wonderful parents as well, that the MCAS-alt is a waste of both student and teacher’s time because it takes away from focusing on the important (usually developmentally-based) skills that the student “should” be working on according to her/his IEP.

Yet, when the IEP is written with the grade level curriculum as the starting point (as opposed to the outdated and usually bogus notion of the student’s “developmental level”) as the starting point, the MCAS-alt portfolio flows naturally from the student goals, even for students who do not have a formal communication system and students who are working on “access skills” (not necessarily an interchangeable group.)

These teachers get offended at all the requirements to keep a portfolio from being marked incomplete. (10 different dates. Data on work samples must match data on graphs if the dates match. etc.) Yes, it’s a pain, but if you actually teach the lessons throughout the year, it’s really not hard. And that’s the point. Fundamentally, this assessment isn’t about whether the student learned the grade level material (because if they can access grade level material, why are you doing alternate assessment?) It’s not even about showing student progress and mastery (because teachers chose both the skill – within limits – and the mastery criterion.) No, at its most basic level, the MCAS-alt is about forcing teachers’ hands to ensure that all students get at least a little access to instruction in the academic curriculum. And as long as we have teachers who don’t think their students “are ready for” academics we will need the MCAS-alt portfolio assessment, with all its hoops, to make sure they give their students at least a little bit. For the rest of us who are teaching curriculum and trying to move our students forward into more inclusive environments? Well, it’s one more bureaucratic hoop to jump through, and in the world of special education, who will notice one more?

For more from Sharon, follow her on Twitter: @gallianstone

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