Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Tennessee Dept. of Education will add visual aids to help students with disabilities on standardized tests

From The Knoxville News in Tenn.:

With more pictures and fewer questions, a new modified TCAP test is being rolled out this spring for children in grades 3-8 who have disabilities, according to the Tennessee Department of Education.

Called TCAP-MAAS, for Tennessee Comprehensive Achievement Program - Modified Academic Achievement Standard, the test is expected to be a better measurement of achievement for students with disabilities like autism, dyslexia or cognitive delays. It was developed by some 175 educators across the state, piloted last spring in a number of systems, and is now available statewide.

One of the students who will take the test in Knoxville is Michael McIntyre (pictured), 11. He has autism, a communication and cognitive disorder, but is educated along with his typical peers in a fifth-grade classroom at Sequoyah Elementary School.

"The TCAPs have always been a bone of contention with me," says Michael's mother, Jodie McIntyre. "Michael's a smart kid. He can read, he can do math. But he's obviously not going to do well on the TCAP, the way it's set up."

Michael learns everything visually, from math concepts to World War II history. He uses a laptop computer in his classroom to search for pictures and graphs to paste in his notebook with each lesson.

"Pictures are his first language," says McIntyre. "It's like everybody's speaking Chinese to him all the time, and he has to figure it out."

Last winter, McIntyre applied to the state to accommodate Michael's autism by adding pictures and graphs to the TCAP test.

Her petition was denied, because no one's allowed to see the TCAPs before the children open the test booklets, according to Lori Nixon, special education assessment consultant for the Tennessee Department of Education.

But, in the meantime, Nixon's office came out with the TCAP-MAAS, which incorporates many of the visuals McIntyre asked for.

"Our task was to develop an assessment that is more accessible for our special education students," says Nixon. "We found that the test itself was a barrier for some students."

The new test covers the same grade level curriculum, but has fewer questions, more white space, more pictures and graphs and bigger type font.

"I'm thrilled with the TCAP-MAAS," says McIntyre. "It validates everything I've been trying to do with Michael. I am so excited that a standardized test may be closer to how my kid functions, and actually shows what he can do."

Local school system officials say they are scrambling to figure out who's going to take the test since the state issued guidelines in November. Each child first must be approved to take the test by an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) team, a committee of parents, teachers and specialists who meet periodically to determine the educational plan for a student with a disability. While teams can meet by e-mail or phone, they more often meet in person.

Officials in Knox County, Anderson County and Oak Ridge Public Schools each say they placed orders for about two percent of their tests to be the modified version (see sidebar for why).

In Knox County, officials have ordered "a little more than two percent" of their 27,707 total grade 3-8 tests to be the modified version, according to Melissa Massie, director of student support services. "Once we know the actual number of tests needed we will be able to order additional tests if necessary," says Massie.

Michael's mother says his IEP team agreed last week to sign him up for the test.

"I'm not saying he'll blow the doors off the test at all," says McIntyre. "But the TCAP-MAAS for me is liberating because I've been told time and again my standards are too high. We should have high expectations for all our kids."