Learning Opportunities For Your Child Through Alternate Assessments
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Big Idea 3: Access to Grade-Level Content

Many parents worry about schools assessing their children with the most significant cognitive disabilities. They know that their child may not have access to academic instruction in math and reading (that is, access to the general curriculum). They may wonder if it really is possible for their child to learn reading and math.

Many children with the most significant cognitive disabilities have IEP goals that are focused on learning life skills. The third big idea contained in NCLB and IDEA recognizes that students with the most significant cognitive disabilities can learn both functional skills and academic skills at the same time. That is, we should not wait to teach a child to read until after they have mastered functional skills. As one researcher put it, "Students who are nondisabled are not expected to master cleaning their rooms or washing their hands before they receive instruction in reading." Many of the resources we provide at the end of this booklet confirm that students with significant challenges can thrive by learning academic content while they are learning life skills, just as their typical peers do.

Parents can be assured that experience and research are beginning to show that when the instructional content is clearly linked to reading, math and science standards, high expectations have been set for their child and that their child is taught in the same areas that are going to be assessed.

Just looking at grade-level curriculum can make the task of identifying ways to link your child's curriculum to grade-level learning standards formidable. Parents and IEP teams may conclude that some students with the most significant cognitive disabilities are unable to achieve grade-level expectations, even with the best instruction. What makes more sense, and is becoming good practice in many states, is to help IEP teams s-t-r-e-t-c-h the grade-level learning standards to make possible lots of "entry points." Let's look at some examples below:

Math Example

Grade 7 Content Standard—Data Analysis (Statistics):
Students will apply range and measures of central tendency (mean, median and mode) of a given numerical data set.

How students learn the content:
All seventh-graders are learning the concepts of mean, median and mode. They plot various sets of data, including prices, to illustrate the concepts. Ron is plotting the mode using prices cut from advertisements and then glued on an organizer to create a bar graph.

Why this is useful:
Looking at information and drawing conclusions from it (data analysis) is an important skill that helps us understand everything from shopping to social trends.

Combining academic and functional learning:
Ron is learning the concepts of more, equal ("same"), and less in the context of consumer choices. Having access to the same information as other students his age helps him develop appropriate language and provides increased opportunities for interaction and communication.

Another student in Ron's class is learning similar skills and concepts using an adapted keyboard to graph the mode. This activity gives that student an opportunity to practice picture identification and fine motor skills, as well more practice in ways (other than speech) to communicate.

Reading Example

Grade 6 Content Standard—Comprehending Literary Text (Elements of Literature):
Students will describe the plots and main parts of grade-level novels (e.g., main events, conflict, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution).

How students learn the content:
Sixth-graders are reading a book about dolphins and using it to learn about plot components. They all use graphic organizers to help them analyze the story. June is working on basic plot components using a graphic organizer that provides visual cues. Her materials also reflect her augmentative communication and text identification systems of photographs and line drawings paired with print.

Why this is useful:
Learning to sequence events in reading gives students not only an appreciation of literature and a deeper understanding of recreation and leisure activities, but can help generalize sequencing skills. Sequencing is an important skill used in most life activities from self care to scheduling to vocational tasks.

Combining academic and functional learning:
Besides text comprehension (including word recognition strategies and vocabulary), June is working on sequencing (first then next then last and beginning then middle then end). Having access to the same literature as other students her age gives her increased opportunities for interaction and communication.

Another student is identifying the events in the story using tactile symbols (sand for being alone on the island, fake fur for being hunted by the wild dogs, and a wooden dowel for the mast of the sailboat). This gives him more practice in developing and using a consistent mode of communication in addition to learning about the story and the concepts of beginning then ending and first then last. It also provides opportunities for sensory integration experiences.

What these examples have in common is that they are based on the state academic content standards, and demonstrate ways all children can access the general curriculum. That is the foundation on which your child's alternate assessment must be built.

Your child's progress on IEP goals or an assessment of functional life skills cannot be used as achievement measures under the accountability provisions of NCLB and IDEA. IEP goals are individual to each child and are developed for the purpose of reporting progress to parents and making decisions about programs and services a child receives.

In addition, IEP goals are often not aligned with state academic content standards. Therefore, it is not possible to use IEP goals to measure whether schools are meeting their goals for AYP, which is the measure of school accountability under NCLB. Learning functional skills may be an important component of your child's IEP, but it is also critical that your child have access to the general curriculum and that your child's academic achievement be counted for AYP purposes.

NCLB's accountability provisions go beyond the individual accountability of the IEP to ensure each student's broad learning needs in the general curriculum are supported. For students with disabilities, the system accountability of NCLB and IDEA adds more accountability—that every school and district must be accountable for the academic learning for all students—including those with the most significant cognitive disabilities.

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Last Modified: 07/07/2009