Meeting the lawmakers

This past Thursday my daughter and I, along with her nanny, met with three members of the Commonwealth of Massachussets’ House of Representatives. In the order of the picture, Representative Barbara L’Italien, Representative Tom Sannicandro, Representative and Majority Leader John Rogers. It was a great meeting and they are interested in helping. I will update with more information shortly.

Time for the law

At this point, we have exhausted all of our options in the educational community. I have asked, in the following order, for my daughter to be excused from the NCLB testing:

her teacher
the IEP team
the school headmaster
the school district administration
the MA Department of Education
the Commissioner of Education

No one has stepped up to the plate. Basically, they are all “following the law.” This is so ridiculous … ok, so now we change the law.

To all that read this blog …

The Commissioner of Education has responded to my request to have my daughter excused from the MCAS. Basically he says he cannot do it. He also responds to one of my points but not the others. No one has yet to explain why my daughter needs to have a concept of history (defined as events previous to 1990) and to be tested in any way within the context of that subject. Just one example of testing her to the Curriculum Frameworks.

It is interesting that the Commissioner references the IDEA laws but not the NCLB.

As my staff has shared with you, state and federal laws, such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), require that all students be provided access to and the opportunity to make progress in the general curriculum. In addition, you may be aware that the Department has created a guide to the Massachusetts learning standards specifically for students with significant cognitive disabilities. This guide outlines tasks and activities at varying levels of complexity in each content area, and includes skills appropriate for students with even the most severe disabilities.

This statement shows that the Commissioner unfortunately does not have a grasp of the category of “severely disabled.” The idea of my daughter making “progress in the general curriculum” is absurd and MCAS-Alt testing for her does not and cannot show that she is “provided access to and the opportunity to make progress in the general curriculum.” The guide he refers to for students with “significant cognitive disabilities” does not include anything that is relevant to my daughter as far as I can find. It is obvious that the concept of a child who has absolutely no communicative abilities, no ability to perform any task requested of her is one that did not play a part in any of the design or planning of this assessment. I would do anything possible to have the Commissioner and his staff spend just 30 minutes with my daughter. If anyone knows how to arrange this, please let me know!

Nancy Hanson of the DOE has told my daughter’s teacher that if she raises her head for five seconds while she is being spoken to in English, that counts for part of the English requirement. What on earth counts as part of the History requirement is unknown to me, but it has been made clear to my daughter’s teacher that it MUST be in the context of history. Maybe if she drools while being told of the nuances of the Emancipation Proclamation she will pass.

The Department of Education is apparently bound by the laws of the Commonwealth and the NCLB as well as their own lack of understanding of this particular population. We must work to modify the laws and regulations concerning the MCAS, especially and specifically how it deals with the severely disabled student.

The idea is for accountability and assessment, as far as I understand. That will NOT be accomplished by testing my daughter in Math, English, History and Science. There are other ways. Accountability and assessment are vital, I agree and support that. But not at the expense of these students. Not testing and grading her in absurd ways.

Please help me modify the NCLB as well as the laws in the Commonwealth to take into account one population that cannot speak for itself, the one population arguably in the most need for valid accountability and assessment. Accountability and assessment of those responsible for the “education” not those who are “learning.”

I have run out of options through the educational channels and now turn to our law makers. The Honorable John Rogers, State Representative and Majority Leader has agreed to meet with me to discuss these issues and I greatly appreciate his time and look forward to our meeting.

Please write to me with any ideas and information.

The Commissioner responds …

I just received this letter from the Commissioner. He tells me that the law does not allow him to exempt my daughter and he responds to the issue of self-evaluation. It is interesting he does not respond to other issues, just those where I am in error. I have removed my daughter’s name, otherwise his letter, as received.


I am writing in response to your recent communications with the Department regarding your daughter. Thank you for talking with me yesterday. I know that you have expressed a number of concerns, and I understand, based on the many documented exchanges with the Department, that they center around two issues. First, you have requested that your daughter not be assessed by the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS). Second, you have questioned whether it is appropriate to require severely disabled students, such as your daughter, to receive instruction based on the standards in the curriculum frameworks.

With respect to the first issue you raise, I understand that you would like your daughter not to be assessed on the MCAS. As members of my staff have informed you, and as I indicated in a statement issued to the press in June, all students educated with public funds, without exception, must be assessed by MCAS in accordance with state and federal law. As we have shared with you, if a student has a disability, the student’s IEP Team determines whether it is most appropriate for the student to participate in the standard MCAS test (with or without accommodations) or in the MCAS-Alt, an alternate assessment process for students with disabilities, particularly students with severe cognitive disabilities. The MCAS-Alt is based on a body of student work (portfolio) collected by the student’s teacher throughout the course of the school year.

It may be helpful to understand the purpose of the laws requiring the assessment of all students, including students with severe cognitive disabilities. The legal requirements underscore the importance and intrinsic value of educating all students, irrespective of disability. The law also ensures that schools are accountable for providing all students access to the academic curriculum. In keeping with these laws, MCAS testing is intended to ensure that all students are provided access to the general curriculum and have the opportunity to improve their skills in the content areas. MCAS results allow administrators, educators, and parents to see what students have learned and to set goals for students. Nearly 8000 students statewide, most of whom have significant cognitive disabilities, participate annually in the MCAS-Alt; among these are students with severe communications disorders.

In your letter and in our telephone conversation, you referred to Massachusetts regulation 603 CMR 30.03(3)(b) as the basis for requesting a waiver of the MCAS requirement for your daughter. This regulation has been cited out of context. The regulation refers to the legal authority of the commissioner to allow a student in the class of 2010 to be assessed in a high school science content area later than grade 10 in cases where a student transfers to a Massachusetts public school district after grade 10 or cannot be tested in Grade 10 due to illness. I can confirm that I, as commissioner, have no authority under state or federal law to exempt a student who is educated with public funds from being assessed on MCAS.

With regard to the second issue you raise, I understand that you believe that, due to the nature and severity of your daughter’s disability, it is inappropriate for your daughter to receive instruction based on the standards contained in the curriculum frameworks. As my staff has shared with you, state and federal laws, such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), require that all students be provided access to and the opportunity to make progress in the general curriculum. In addition, you may be aware that the Department has created a guide to the Massachusetts learning standards specifically for students with significant cognitive disabilities. This guide outlines tasks and activities at varying levels of complexity in each content area, and includes skills appropriate for students with even the most severe disabilities. Special educators have used this guide as the basis of instruction for their students, as well as for compiling their MCAS-Alt portfolios. In response to your concerns regarding the “self-evaluation” component of the MCAS-Alt, I want to reassure you that this component is optional, as outlined in the MCAS-Alt Educator ‘s Manual posted to www.doe.mass.edu/mcas/alt/edmanual.pdf.

The Department has been in touch with Superintendent Bill Lupini about your concerns. I encourage you to work with the superintendent and his staff to determine the most appropriate and effective strategy for delivering academic instruction to [your daughter].

I recognize that you have been disappointed and frustrated by the information Department staff has provided to you. While I acknowledge your disappointment, I fully support the integrity and accuracy of the information provided to you by members of my staff, especially MCAS-Alt Coordinator Nancy Hanson, and stand behind the professionalism and time that Nancy and others have given in their interactions with you.

I trust that you will work with Brookline school officials to construct a solution that is responsive to the requirements of the law and meets [your daughter]’s educational needs. I appreciate your understanding that, unless new substantive developments occur in this case, or current federal and state laws and regulations are amended as they relate to this case, I consider this matter closed.

I offer you and [your daughter] my best wishes.

Sincerely,

Mitchell D. Chester, Ed.D.
Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education

Spoke to Commissioner of Education today! (nice guy)

Commissioner Chester:

I want to thank you for your time on the phone today. I believe the exchange of information between us was a good one and will bear fruit with regards to the MCAS and the severely disabled. We appear to agree fully on what the alternate assessment should be.

At this point I would like to respond to a couple of points that came up and to put them in writing as a way of verifying that I heard what in fact you were saying and vice versa.

The part of the law the I refer to in asking you to waive the exam for my daughter is 603 CMR 30.03(3)(b) and is found on your web site here: http://www.doe.mass.edu/lawsregs/603cmr30.html?section=03. I am not a lawyer, and actually I am a bit surprised that in fact you are given this option, but there it is. Please let me know your interpretation of it.

Since you do not know my daughter, one must keep in mind that she not only has no known form of communication, she has no known movements that are done with intent. She cannot scratch where she itches, cannot point, look somewhere on request, etc.

You stated several times that the test “should be tailored to the child” and that it is “not appropriate to ask the student to do something she cannot do.” Additionally, you mentioned that what my daughter “should be experiencing in terms of assessment should be very much tailored to her conditions.” I could not agree more with all of that. My issue is that the guidelines that the teachers must follow are completely void of those ideas.

This all brings me to the 2008 Educator’s Manual for MCAS-Alt. All the quotes to follow are from that document. My issue is that that document makes firm statements, has requirements, and demands things that now appear to be in complete contrast with your view of the what the alternate assessment should be for my daughter and for my son. All the page references offered are to that document.

The first quotes show that the assessment must assess to the Curriculum Frameworks. There is no apparent “wiggle room” here, so anything done with the test MUST be to the Curriculum Framework. Hence any observation of my daughter must be with regards to Math, English, and Science.

“the purpose of the MCAS Alternate Assessment (MCAS-Alt) is to assess the achievement of students in relation to knowledge and skills specified in the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks. … These students participate in MCAS through the alternate assessment portfolio, which in accordance with the law, must be compiled and submitted in the same content areas and grades as those in which standard MCAS tests are administered. (Commissioner’s Forward)

The No Child Left Behind law and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 reinforced that all Massachusetts students, even those with significant disabilities, must receive instruction that is aligned with the skills, concepts, and knowledge supported by the learning standards in the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks. (page 10)

The No Child Left Behind law requires the administration of statewide MCAS assessments (including alternate assessments) in ELA/reading and mathematics in grades 3-8 and in grade 10. Science and Technology/Engineering assessments are also required by law at least once in elementary, middle, and high school. At the high school level, MCAS and MCAS-Alt will assess Science and Technology/Engineering in specific disciplines (either Biology, Introductory Physics, Chemistry, or Technology/Engineering) either in grade 9 or 10. These requirements will allow for the documentation of each student’s academic performance and progress, and will ensure that students with significant disabilities are receiving instruction in important areas of the curriculum. (page 11)

My daughter’s introduction to the MCAS-Alt “must include”:

Student’s Introduction to the Portfolio produced as independently as possible by the student using his or her primary mode of communication. This introduction may be written, dictated, or recorded on video or audiotape and should describe “What I want others to know about me as a learner and about my portfolio.” (page 33)

How does my daughter do that? She cannot. As you stated to me, it is “not appropriate to ask the student to do something she cannot do.” So then that “must include” requirement is … what? To be ignored? Is “must include” just a suggestion?

The student then has over 50 data charts and data points to fulfill. These must be in English, Math and Science and then required by the Commonwealth:

A completed data chart must be included that measures the student’s accuracy and independence in performing tasks on at least five different dates based on a single skill or outcome in the learning standard being assessed.
Data charts must show that the student attempted to learn a new skill. (page 36, emphasis by DOE)

How do you show (it is mandated) that a student “attempted to learn a new skill” with a student who cannot control their motion, cannot communicate in any manner? This is required and is judged against the Curriculum Frameworks.

Step 9. Student self-evaluates.
At the end of a series of instructional activities in which strategies for reinforcement and/or consequences are used, it is important to provide opportunities for a student to evaluate and reflect on his or her performance. … (page 43)

How do you do this with my daughter?

Finally, and most important, how does this next piece get fulfilled with my daughter? Her portfolio is scored based on the level she learns, understands, and applies skills and knowledge. Stating this in your manual is stating that my daughter (or her portfolio) will be scored on her application of skills and knowledge of the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks. Your words, not mine:

The scoring of MCAS-Alt portfolios reflects the goal of standard MCAS tests, which is to gauge the level at which a student learns, understands, and applies skills and knowledge outlined in the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks. MCAS-Alt is intended to ensure that students with significant disabilities have been given access to the general education curriculum (i.e., the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks), as required by law, and to measure how much of this material they have learned. (page 49)

From the start, she cannot show any of that. How will any of this, that she cannot do anyway, ensure that she has been given access to the Curriculum Frameworks, as required by law?

Again, my issues are with the implementation, the mandates, and the guidelines surrounding the MCAS-Alt, not the fact that an assessment should be done.

My request for my daughter, and my son, to be exempt from the MCAS exams still stands. Additionally, I will gladly work with you and your team in any way appropriate to make the assessment be what both you and I seemingly agree it should be, that is “tailored to the individual functioning of the student.”

Thank you for your time and consideration.

We may be getting somewhere …

I received a call from the secretary (?) for the Commissioner of Education for the Commonwealth. We will have a phone call next Wednesday morning. Hopefully some progress.

On another note, there is a new web site, just starting, worth checking out (you will see why). Check it out here.

More (and less) information

First the less: no response from Nancy Hanson of the Mass. DOE. What a surprise.

Now the more: I have spoken with a wonderful woman in the Florida Department of Education she is helping me research the basis of the Florida law that allows an IEP team to exempt a student from the FCAT (their NCLB testing). I will post as I know more. Stay tuned!