To Kristin Koegler, a secret to success in teaching her special needs students is to meet them at their level.
Not their grade level, which is 4th and 5th grades. But their functional or cognitive level which for most — though not all — of the children in Koegler’s class this year is between prekindergarten and 1st grade.
Koegler’s students in a District 75 program, P4K at PS 81 in Brooklyn, have disabilities that include Down syndrome and severe emotional disabilities.
This year, however, Koegler said she has been doing more testing than teaching because of changes that the State Education Department made to the state alternate assessment for severely disabled students to align it to the Common Core Learning Standards. And, the testing has been at a level above the students’ abilities, she said.
Koegler is not alone in her concerns.
Across the city and the state, special education teachers have raised alarms about changes this year to the alternate assessment, known by its acronym NYSAA.
One big concern is that the test can eat up more than 100 hours of class time.
That leaves less time for teachers to work with students on life skills or creative activities, and it makes the new tests a de facto curriculum.
“The state rushed to apply the Common Core to everyone and didn’t stop to think about the real needs or abilities of these students,” said UFT Vice President for Special Education Carmen Alvarez.
District 75 Representative Analia Gerard said she is concerned that teachers are so busy testing they have less time to address students’ functional needs, such as helping a 9-year-old to finally get toilet-trained or an older child to sit in her seat for an entire class period.
“There are things not measurable by the Common Core standards,” Gerard said.
In response to such concerns, NYSUT has written a letter to State Education Commissioner John King asking for changes to the test.
The revised NYSAA assesses children on 10 standards in math and English language arts, up from four on the previous test. But it puts the burden on teachers to make up separate tasks for assessing students, which has proved to be a paperwork nightmare.
Koegler has already filled one-inch binders on each of her 12 students.
She said the new test is far less flexible than the previous NYSAA, forcing teachers to assess students on developmentally inappropriate questions.
In Koegler’s class, for example, one math question asked them to “identify the numerical expression” among three choices: 7 or 7+2 or 7+2=9. This was to a group of children who are mostly at a cognitive level of prekindergarten to 1st grade.
“I want to expose my students to what their peers are learning, although with different expectations,” Koegler said. “But the way we’re doing it is not meeting them at their level anymore. It feels purposeless.”