Video: Senate Ed approves special ed alternative assessment task force - AZEdNews
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Video: Senate Ed approves special ed alternative assessment task force

Arizona Teacher Of The Year Kareem Neal Works With Special Education Students In His Self-contained Classroom At Maryvale High School On An Assignment. Photo Courtesy Of Arizona Educational Foundation

The Arizona Legislature’s Senate Education Committee approved Senate Bill 1028 Tuesday that would create a task force to discuss allowing special education students to take an alternative assessment that would better measure their academic growth than AzMERIT.

SB 1028, sponsored by Sen. Nancy Barto, also would establish an alternative assessment study task force committee to discuss and evaluate the following topics related to alternative assessments for special education students.

  • How this state can improve outreach and professional development to ensure support for parents and educators of special education students who are not eligible for the alternative assessment.
  • Accommodations provided to special education students while taking assessments.
  • Guidance on properly identifying students for the alternative assessment.
  • Professional development opportunities for special education teachers and school administrators.
  • Developing a parent guidebook on assessments for students with special needs

Arizona Capitol Television video: Senate Education Committee meeting 1/19/21

The bill also requires the task force to submit a report of its findings, conclusions, and recommendations to the Governor, the Superintendent of Public Instruction, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and the President of the Senate by December 1, 2021.

The bill received a due pass recommendation as amended with 8 ayes, 0 nays and 0 absent, and it will be heard in the Senate Rules Committee next.

Click here for a summary of SB 1028 by ASBA’s Governmental Relations team

Sen. Barto ran a similar bill last year at the request of constituents who are also special ed teachers, who brought the issue to her attention.

Video: Senate Ed approves special ed alternative assessment task force Sen-Barto-2
Sen. Nancy Barto discusses SB 1028 during the Senate Education Committee meeting Jan. 19, 2021. Photo courtesy Arizona Capitol Television

“Since I’ve brought this up I’ve received so much feedback, because the problem here is that children in special education have varied needs ranging from mild learning disabilities to very severe cognitive disabilities that require a self-contained track where students may be learning basic life skills so they can operate in the real world once they’re of age,” Sen. Barto said.

Special education students are not all alike, “but when it comes to testing too many are treated as if they are because of the arbitrary 1 percent cap that’s imposed federally on the number of students that are eligible to take an alternate test that is more appropriate for their academic level,” Sen. Barto said.

“Many more special ed students are eligible for an alternative test, but because of the cap they must take a difficult test, which they fail such as the AzMERIT,” Sen. Barto said.

“It is not OK that some vulnerable students are forced to take tests that are inappropriate and beyond their academic levels simply because they do not qualify for an alternative assessment due to this cap,” Sen. Barto said.

“It not only wastes their time and the teacher’s time, but it may unnecessarily and negatively affect the students, which manifests as stress and behavioral issues,” Sen. Barto said.

The intent of the cap is that all students should have measured progress and schools and parents should encourage students to learn at the highest levels and not assume that they cannot succeed, Sen. Barto said.

Video: Senate Ed approves special ed alternative assessment task force Kareem-Neal-with-Students-1-1024x575
Arizona Teacher of the Year Kareem Neal works with special education students in his self-contained classroom at Maryvale High School on an assignment. Photo courtesy of Arizona Educational Foundation

“However, testing a student on materials that have absolutely no relation to what they’re learning in class due to their disabilities serves only to discourage and confuse students,” Sen. Barto said.

“The result is many parents simply keep their child home on testing days, which lowers the school’s testing participation rate,” Sen. Barto said, noting that the federal government punishes states on those rates.

“This bill  is an attempt to focus on what we can do, and what we’re trying to do is set up a task force aimed to help bring parents and teachers into the conversation in a constructive way around this issue,” Sen. Barto said.

“We should be doing a much better job measuring intellectual growth to better prepare these students for their futures, finding ways to do this outside of a task force is leaving this undone,” Sen. Barto said.

Video: Senate Ed approves special ed alternative assessment task force Sen-Voting
Senate Education Committee members prepare to vote on SB 1028. Photo courtesy Arizona Capitol Television

“The goal is to work with the Arizona Dept. of Education to find the flexibility within the federal rules to assess the magnitude of the issue in Arizona and better serve both our dedicated special educators and parents and students,” Sen. Barto said.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Paul Boyer then invited people who had registered to comment on the bill to speak about it.

Daniel Van Tienderen, a high school special education teacher for 13 years, said standardized testing for special education students has frustrated him, his fellow teachers, his students and their parents for all his years teaching.

“The problem revolves around students who are in my modified courses. This means that their curriculum is adapted to an extreme level, such as a student who is in 11th grade who is still learning skills and content between the kindergarten to sixth grade levels,” Van Tienderen said.

“Due to federal law there is a limit of  percent of students who are allowed to take an alternative assessment during the year without risking the loss of funding to the state or the school district,” Van Tienderen said. “So what happens when more than 1 percent of students meet that criteria or the criteria for an alternate assessment? They take the standard ACT test instead, a test that they are not prepared for.”

Van Tienderen said the qualifying criteria for special ed students to be eligible for an alternative assessment “is left somewhat ambiguous by the state and each district is told they need to look at their numbers and decide what their criteria will be.”

Video: Senate Ed approves special ed alternative assessment task force Daniel-Vantendrin-Special-education-teacher
Special Education Teacher Daniel Van Tienderen speaks in support of SB 1028 on Jan. 19, 2021. Photo courtesy Arizona Capitol Television

“This leads to some unfortunate and hopefully avoidable scenarios such as, one, a student’s IEP meeting is held and a student qualifies for an alternative assessment, then when that IEP carries over to the next school year, the student no longer qualifies for an alternative assessment. The team then meets with the parent to explain the reason why,” Van Tienderen said.

In other cases, a student may qualify for an alternative assessment in one school district but moves to another and doesn’t qualify in the new school district, Van Tienderen said.

“Some of the students who don’t qualify and are now required to take the standard assessment for their grade such as the ACT, when they may still be learning skills and content knowledge in the first to second grade level,” Van Tienderen said. “They’re expected to take a four plus hour test to determine their readiness for college. This lacks purpose and it provides no useful data regarding the student’s knowledge.”

“It’s cruel to have students take a test you know they will fail,” Van Tienderen said. “It’s cruel for the student and cruel for the teacher to put them in that situation. Students have sat through the test, then with loss of hope in their teachers, looked at them and said ‘Why didn’t you prepare me for this?’ ”

“It wasn’t for lack of effort, desire or hard work on anyone’s part. It just wasn’t appropriate,” Van Tienderen said.

“Senate Bill 2018 is designed to consider how we can create improvements regarding assessments for students in special education. I ask that you pass Senate Bill 1028 to begin that process,” Van Tienderen said.

Then Carmen Terrell, a parent of an autistic child, said she supported Senate Bill 1028, because it’s important that the assessment used be appropriate and measure a child’s academic growth.

Video: Senate Ed approves special ed alternative assessment task force Carmen-Terrell-2
Carmen Terrell speaks in support of Senate bill 1038 during the Senate Education Committee on Jan. 19, 2021. Photo courtesy Arizona Capitol Television

“It’s important to accommodate that if someone has the understanding of what their needs are,” Terrell said.

Terrell said it’s important to provide the option for alternative assessments for special education students who have that in their Individual Education Plans.

Senate Education Vice Chair T.J. Shope then moved the bill with a due pass recommendation and the amendment be adopted.

The bill received a due pass recommendation as amended with 8 ayes, 0 nays and 0 absent, and it will be heard in the Senate Rules Committee next.

For more information on education bills going through the Arizona Legislature, please sign up here for Daily In-Session Updates from Arizona School Boards Association‘s Governmental Relations team.