Finding the Genius in Students with Significant Cognitive Disability
Winter 2019

The Future of Assessment

Finding the Genius in Students with Significant Cognitive Disabilities

Finding the Genius in Students with Significant Cognitive Disabilities

A simple assessment has revolutionized our school. A decade ago, my teachers and I anticipated the annual statewide assessment of our students with dread. Now, the Florida Standards Alternate Assessment has become an inspiration. How did this happen? By raising expectations for students with significant cognitive disabilities, and providing a tool that reveals their abilities to think abstractly and express themselves.
About Lake Hills School

Lake Hills School is the Exceptional Student Education Center School for Lake County, Florida, which serves students with significant cognitive disabilities (SwSCD) ages 3–22. All of the classrooms at Lake Hills School are self-contained meaning the classes are multi-grade level and multi-ability level. For example, a high-school teacher of a self-contained classroom with students in grades 9–12 is charged with teaching all content area courses at varying levels of ability.

Additionally, 80 percent of our students are non-verbal and the remaining 20 percent have limited and/or impaired abilities to understand and use language. Teachers are responsible for providing instruction in each student’s primary mode of communication, which could be eye gazing, gestures, pictures with or without voice output, and communication software on devices such as iPad, Go-Talk, communication switches, and Dynavox.

A brief history of education and assessment for SwSCD

Until 1997, there was no requirement to assess SwSCD. The Education for All Handicapped Children Act, enacted by Congress in 1975, guaranteed a free, appropriate public education to each child with a disability across the country. When amended in 1990, that legislation became the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Amended again in 1997, IDEA mandated that schools report progress to parents of children with disabilities as frequently as they report to parents of non-disabled children—the new requirement for alternate assessments.

IDEA 97 included another provision that rocked the world of special education. Instead of focusing on functional life skills, students with disabilities were now required to have access to and show progress in the general curriculum. The federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2002and IDEA 2004 helped clarify that the general curriculum must be based on the same academic standards and expectations as those for all other students in each state.

Transitioning to academic standards

In 2007, Florida introduced the Florida Standards Access Points, which are grade-level expectations written for SwSCD to access the general education curriculum. The Access Points reflect the key concepts of the Next Generation Sunshine State Standards with reduced levels of complexity. As a result, instruction for SwSCD has been changing at a rapid pace.

To satisfy the state’s Access Points directives, at Lake Hills School we developed a comprehensive, long-term plan. We began our transition to the new curriculum in 2009, introducing new instruction for one subject area each year. Our first year, we saw great strides as we introduced the reading access points. We had the same success the next year with mathematics. Then came writing—and we flopped. We struggled to teach our students the concept of translating their thoughts to paper. We struggled to provide access to writing to students with physical challenges. They were bigger tasks than our skill set covered at the time. But we maintained our momentum. We abandoned the instructional plan for writing and went on to science and social studies. We honestly didn’t know what to do about writing. We hoped that perseverance would eventually shed light on our journey of teaching our students the writing process

What does this have to do with assessment?

In 2015, the Florida Department of Education introduced a new design for the Florida Standards Alternate Assessment (FSAA), with Measured Progress as the continuing contractor and partner. That fall, teachers across the state were trained on how to administer the new writing assessment, which included a simple template and outline to guide students’ responses to short text passages. The template and outline present a series of prompts that lead the student to support it, and form a conclusion or opinion. The student responds using his or her primary mode of communication. When the writing process for the FSAA was rolled out, it rocked our world. The new approach was very challenging for us, but we had to find a way to make it work.

Eureka! As teachers began to work with the template and outline, they realized its power to elicit student communication and help students organize their thinking. Simply put, it was a game changer. We found the template allows students who couldn’t respond before to express what they know. The writing assessment template and outline became our foundational tool for teaching writing, and its impact goes well beyond writing instruction.

We used to treat writing as an isolated unit at the end of the year. But now, stemming from the assessment model, writing has become part of the instructional culture of our school and is included in daily activities.

All our students find a way to respond and communicate their understanding. Some students use all pictures, some use pictures and verbal language, some share an oral response, and some write. And now, we integrate writing with all English Language Arts instruction.

Far-reaching impacts

The impact on our students has been tremendous. Students are meeting the raised expectations. Often, these students know they have limitations and don’t try to exceed them. But we’ve broken that barrier. Now students see their classmates writing and sharing their ideas, and they want to do the same thing. Often, testing carries a negative stigma. For many teachers, it’s been an ordeal. And sometimes you hear complaints that assessments have the effect of forcing “teaching to the test.” 

In this case, our instruction has improved by leaps and bounds as a result of teaching from the test!

The format of the writing assessment has influenced our teaching in all subject areas because it allows open-ended questioning. Students can demonstrate actual comprehension instead of responding to teacher-provided either/or choices or multiple-choice options. Our students can now express their ideas!

It’s hard to describe the magnitude of this change to those who haven’t witnessed it. Many of our students have autism, and lack the ability to put their thoughts together cohesively. They experience a tornado of ideas, and they can’t organize them or put them in a sequence. They become frustrated and unhappy, and their feelings manifest in a variety of undesirable behaviors. But when we teach students to think in a coherent manner, it actually calms that storm.

Students have become happier people because they take ownership of their thinking and their decisions.

In fact, one unintended positive result of our transition is that student disruptive behaviors have decreased by 80 percent over the past four years. All this is groundbreaking in our world. Testing has flipped to become a powerful tool for us.

Malachi

We knew Malachi could read at about a second-grade level. He acknowledged “who,” “what,” and “where,” but showed no comprehension about “why” or “how. Using his iPad, Malachi would write a phrase—such as “the blue cat.” One of his Individualized Education Program goals was to improve his writing. How could we get him to express his knowledge? If he could write a phrase, why not a sentence? Two sentences? Why not a summary? When his teachers considered the elements of a summary, they realized they’re all right there in the template. Following the template, Malachi learned to put his thoughts together in sequence. And now he likes writing so much that he prefers using a pencil to his iPad.

Another element of our writing program is having students present their writing to their peers, in whatever format they typically communicate, and we all celebrate their writing. Although typically very quiet, Malachi began to participate. He got practice sharing with classmates. Now, remarkably, he’s been able to generalize that ability and socialize. He used to interact only by responding when prompted, but now he initiates conversation. That’s a profound thing for students with autism.

We’ve been using the template in instruction for two years. This summer, when school began, Malachi responded to an assignment with a complete summary, using all the elements from the template—without using the template. His thinking was so complete!

Malachi isn’t the only one who’s shown new, positive behaviors. Many of our students are very shy. Writing and putting their ideas together and then sharing their writing has helped make them comfortable interacting. Celebrating their accomplishments helps students learn to encourage and praise each other. In our classrooms, we now hear “Way to go!” and “Good job!” That never used to happen. Now it’s the norm.

We never knew that raising the bar in instruction and assessment would have such an impact on our children’s social development.

The future: building on success

Now that we appreciate the power of a well-designed assessment to stimulate learning and help students reach high expectations, of course we want even more! My teachers and I have dreams for the future that take advantage of available technology for assessing students throughout the year—from informal classroom activities to scheduled assessments.

First, we’d like to see expanded or increased usage of technology for assessing our students. Our students’ modes of communication are easily adaptable by available software.

  • Second, we’d love to see the capabilities of digital technology being tapped—for example, animated or real-life videos. Digital technology provides concrete and real-life experiences and learning opportunities. Their general education peers have these broad experiences—why not our students?
  • We’d love to find additional ways to communicate to parents and guardians about what their kids are accomplishing. It would be great to provide more detailed information—not just about where their kids need more help, but about the areas that they’re mastering!
  • Finally, it would be wonderful to have tests available throughout the year so we could have a concrete picture of each student’s growth over time.

I don’t know whether other alternate assessment programs have methods as powerful as ours. But I certainly hope that in the future more states and schools experience transformation like ours as a result of adapting strong assessment methods.

Meaningful assessment has not just demonstrated the quality of our instruction; it has inspired our instruction.

Lighting the way

Over the past few years Lake Hills School has been recognized as leading the charge in teaching Access Points to SwSCD. Since 2013, hundreds of fellow educators from districts and schools across Florida have visited Lake Hills School to learn how to integrate components of our approach at their schools. This interest from colleagues is a testament to the shared vision, high expectations, dedication, and teamwork of the Lake Hills staff.

As teachers, it’s our job to find every child’s genius. Because every child has a genius.

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