Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Special education vs. standards based grading: I think we have a problem

Number one reads and writes at a 3rd-4th grade level. Lately, at age 15, his handwriting has become fairly legible.

We're proud of him. I didn't think he'd learn to read or write at all. it has been a long road with a lot of help from teachers, aides and, yeah, his parents.

Now, as a non-diplomate Setting II student with modifications, he's straining his brain to label mitochondria and endoplasmic reticulum while answering questions about demographic transitions. It's probably not the best use of his time, but he seems to enjoy the work and it's good practice for his reading and writing skills, and even for his very (very) short term IQ 60 verbal memory. We're proud of that too. 'A' work by our standards.

Not by the current standards of his mainstream teachers though. He's getting C- or Fail grades -- despite his IEP. At least one teacher feels this is appropriate since he's "minimally meeting expectations".

Yes, we have a problem.

It's not a new problem. It amazes me how many of his teachers have been unable to read an IEP, and how many seem to lack any low IQ experience. Usually this responds to some education and orientation, but things have been getting worse over the past two years. I think part of the problem is that his school is moving to a recent educational fashion: 'standards based grading'...

Educational Leadership:Expecting Excellence:Seven Reasons for Standards-Based Grading Patricia L. Scriffiny

... standards-based grading, which involves measuring students' proficiency on well-defined course objectives (Tomlinson & McTighe, 2006). Although many districts adopt standards-based grading in addition to traditional grades, standards-based grading can and should replace traditional point-based grades....


An A means the student has completed proficient work on all course objectives and advanced work on some objectives.
A B means the student has completed proficient work on all course objectives.
A C means the student has completed proficient work on the most important objectives, although not on all objectives. The student can continue to the next course.
A D means the student has completed proficient work on at least one-half of the course objectives but is missing some important objectives and is at significant risk of failing the next course in the sequence. The student should repeat the course if it is a prerequisite for another course.
An F means the student has completed proficient work on fewer than one-half of the course objectives and cannot successfully complete the next course in sequence....


Students who struggle can continue to retest and use alternate assessments until they show proficiency, and they are not penalized for needing extended time. I guide students with special needs to modify their work and, if needed, develop different ways of demonstrating that they've met their proficiency goals. Their working styles can be easily accommodated in this system because modified assignments and assessments require no special adjustments in the grade book. The grade book simply shows where they are in meeting the standards, without reference to how they are demonstrating their learning or what modifications needed to be made....

I wonder what Ms. Scriffiny means by 'meeting the standards'. Does she mean the unadjusted course objectives, or does she mean adjusted standards? Her meaning is unclear, and that is the crux of the question. Other articles I've found on 'standards based grading' suggest that grades for non-diplomate Setting II students are problematic.

This really isn't a complex problem. There are two ways to think about this, and they both lead to the same outcomes.

One approach is to adjust the goals, and then grade on the adjusted goals. This is an excellent approach, though it requires some thought and help to formulate goals and modifications. That can be a problem

There's also a budget approach. Start by asking what purpose grades serve for both mainstream (diplomate) students and corporate executives. They motivate work, they measure teacher or manager quality [1], and they are used to stream students and employees along different paths including promotion, lateral moves (from physics to biology for example), and termination. 

In that context a fixed standard makes sense. But number one is not going to graduate from High School. He is not going to go Michigan State University (his current dream). He is probably not going to have unsubsidized employment. He will probably never live independently. There is no point in streaming him, because he is not in the water. He was beached at birth. For him grades serve only two purposes - they can incent him or they can demoralize him

At the moment, his teachers seem to working on the second mission. Our job is to try to change that, working with both teachers and school leadership. Failing that, our job is to find him a better learning environment.

[1] Alas, both corporations and classrooms are prone to the stack-ranking disease.

See also:

Update: A valued advisor of mine suggests this language be added to the IEP. It says to the teacher, "STOP.... you can't grade the way you normally do."

The case manager may reduce course assignments in number, length, content or weight. Alternative assignments need to be arranged between case manager and teacher.

Grading Modification:

Grading may be based on a student’s personal effort in consideration of the student’s own skills/strengths and disability. Casemanager will help determine appropriate grading. Factors such as attendance, class participation, or other appropriate measures should be used to determine a grade if necessary.
Student should not be graded based on meeting the course requirements set for non-disabled peers. Instead, grading should be based on ...

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Adaptation versus Modification: Critical code words in understanding K12 special education. (plus Settings)

Every discipline has its own special language, and special education is no exception. Common words, like 'accommodation', 'adaptation' and 'modification' can take on special meanings. After years of using these words, it may be surprising to learn that not everyone knows what they mean.

Certainly I was surprised to learn, after years of being a special education parent, that for some teachers there's a significant difference between 'adaptation' and 'modification' in special needs education, whereas for others the terms are synonymous. There appear to be local usage variations and it's not clear that regular education teachers, especially novice teachers, understand the distinctions as well as special education teachers.

From what I read the term accommodation is consistently used for relatively modest changes to education and examination. A student may have additional time to do an exam, or may hear questions rather than read them.

The term modification is usually used to refer to significant changes to a curriculum or testing process. My rewrite of a standard 9th text in World History to a 4th grade reading level would be considered a substantial modification. I believe in some locations the words "change in rubric" is used to mean modification.

The term adaptation is sometimes used as a synonym for 'accommodation', sometimes as a synonym for 'modification' and sometimes for something between the two. The meanings appear to be regional, but this British Columbia school district description matches what I hear from a Minneapolis Special Education teacher ...

Adapted and modified education programs

Adapted Program

This is a program that retains the learning outcomes of the prescribed (regular) curriculum but adaptations are provided so that student can participate in the program. Examples of adaptations include assigning a 'buddy' for note-taking, assigning fewer examples for practice, extending time for assignments and tests. Students on adapted programs are assessed using the provincial curriculum standards set out by the Ministry of Education.

Modified Program

This is a program in which the learning outcomes are substantially modified from the prescribed curriculum and specifically selected to meet the student's needs. Examples of modifications include the student being taught the same information as other students, but at a different level of complexity; or given a reduced assignment (e.g., fewer questions to answer); or the student uses a lower-level reading textbook. A student on a modified program is assessed in relation to the goals and objectives established in the student's IEP.A student's program could include some courses that are modified and others that are adapted.

Another BC document makes clear the practical distinction between adaptation and modification:

Although decisions about modifications to a student’s courses or subjects may take place in grades earlier than Grade 10, a formal decision that an overall program is modified does not need to occur until Grade 10.  The decision to provide modifications, particularly at the secondary school level, will result in students earning a School Completion Certificate upon leaving school rather than credits toward graduation ... 

As a parent of one special needs child who will not graduate from high school, and another who should graduate from college, I love the clarity of the Canadian (BC specifically) distinctions. Adapted means regular diploma, modified means no diploma. 

Knowing this, it's possible to squint hard at a No Child Left Behind document on adaptation vs. modification and spy the political subtext. There are big racial achievement gaps in American schools (Koreans do best), and the there's considerable pressure to do 'adaptations' rather than 'modifications' so more kids get diplomas and go to college. This may explain why some school districts appear to be emphasizing adaptations, and why there appears to be no money, and no market, for adapted modified textbooks. Without adapted modified textbooks, and with cuts to special education resources who can do modifications, we have the situation of my son's utterly incomprehensible college-level human geography text and his impossible biology exams.

Mainstream teachers don't have the time, and perhaps not the training, to do modifications, and it's absurd to think that a shrinking number of special education teachers can generate a unique modified textbook and curriculum for every student. Of course there's no reason someone like me couldn't do modified textbooks to be distributed nationwide, but that appears to be quite inconceivable.

See also

Update 10/22/2012: 

In the US the "Settings" concept is an important complement to the model of adaptation (diploma) and modification (no diploma). There are Levels of "settings":

  • Setting I: less than 20% of time in special education setting
  • Setting II: 20-60% of day in special education setting
  • Setting III: more than 60% of day in special education setting

I suspect Setting I is consistent with Adaptations and a diploma, Setting III means modifications and no diploma and Setting II could go either way.

In the case of my #1 son he's currently in Setting II but might do well in Setting III. At this time, however, he strongly prefers Setting II. I suspect that our school has a limited capacity for Setting III, so Setting II is the only thing we've been offered. That could work well if there were resources to provide modifications for Setting II, and if mainstream teachers were keen to use those resources. Instead we've found our mainstream teachers claim to be completely unaware of how to do modifications; sometimes those claims are credible.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Adolescence on the spectrum: new obsessions, new challenges

Obsessive interests are often associated with Asperger's, but they're common to many cognitive disorders. This UK page has a good discussion ...

 Obsessions, repetitive behaviour and routines - | autism | Asperger syndrome

... People with an ASD have many different obsessions but some of the more common ones include computers, trains, historical dates or events, science, or particular TV programmes. Many younger children with an ASD like Thomas the Tank Engine, dinosaurs or particular cartoon characters. Sometimes, people develop obsessions with things like car registration numbers, bus or train timetables, postcodes, traffic lights, numbers, shapes or body parts such as feet or elbows.

People with an ASD may also become attached to objects (or parts of objects), such as toys, figurines or model cars - or more unusual objects like milk bottle tops, stones or shoes. An interest in collecting is also quite common: it might be Star Trek DVDs, travel brochures, insects, leaves or bus tickets....

Like most writing about Asperger's and ASD the focus is on childhood behavior. That suggests this problem improves during the teen years.

Maybe it does - for some. Or maybe it merges into the common obsessions of most teenage boys. For some reason we don't read many articles about the merger of adolescent hormones with obsessive dispositions. Still, some of these child-oriented management techniques may still be applicable in teens ...

... You could set limits in a number of ways depending which behaviour concerns you:

ration objects (eg can only carry five pebbles in pocket)
ration times (eg can watch Thomas the Tank Engine DVD for 20 minutes twice a day)
ration places (eg spinning only allowed at home).

... example of how to set limits.

Identify the repetitive behaviour, obsession or routine of concern. Jane likes to talk about train engines. Jane currently starts talking about train engines after about ten seconds of conversation for up to 15 minutes.

Think about reasonable limits you can put in place that your child can manage. Behavioural change is most likely to be successful and your child less likely to be distressed if you start small and go slowly. Jane is allowed to talk about train engines after 20 seconds of conversation for five minutes only. She is also getting social skills training.

Gradually increase time restrictions and introduce other limits. Jane is first allowed to talk about train engines three times a day. Then, Jane is only allowed to talk about train engines with her family three times a day. The eventual goal is for Jane to speak about train engines to her family only for one minute, twice a day.

If you place limits around obsessions or repetitive behaviour, you might need to think about things your child can do instead: perhaps joining a club or group; taking up a sport or leisure activity; or entering further education, job preparation training or employment if possible...

The last item is perhaps the most interesting. There seems to be a need for the autistic mind to focus on an anchor and return to it repeatedly. If one obsession is problematic, try to find another to take its place ...

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Senior High School and the adaptation problem

American senior high school might be weak by world standards, but the topics are far above what I did 25 years ago. Consider these mainstream 10th grade "human geography" questions, based on a college freshman textbook that's too expensive to distribute to students:

1-NIR Map pg.54-What continent has the highest overall NIR rate-explain why you think that is?
2-TFR map pg.55-Why do you think North America has a TFR of under 2.1? (give one reason)
3-TFR map pg.55-Why might the TFR in Africa be so high, 4.0 or above for most countries (one reason)?
4-Babies born in sub-Saharan African countries can expect to live only into what age (life expectancy)?

Yeah, Houston, we have a problem. A problem for special needs students, and, I suspect, a problem for the 30-40% of the student body with an IQ under 100. This might explain something about drop out rates for neurotypical children.

Broader societal issues aside, there's a big adaptation challenge here. It's possible to create an adapted text, but it takes work to translate the topics and questions to a sub-80 IQ. Even if there's a parent willing and able to do the work, a teacher has understand how to manage adaptive grading within the framework of an IEP.

I said 'a teacher', because our school district recently shifted all adaptation responsibilities to teachers, while deprecating the role of special ed teachers. Our experience is that teachers aren't doing this.

We don't know why they're not doing the adaptions. Based on experience with medicine [1] and corporate life, we suspect the root cause is some mixture of lack of training, lack of experience, lack of local leadership, perverse incentives, lack of interest, and lack of time. In some cases teachers seem to think that minimum wage aides can manage the adaptations (surprise, they can't). Sometimes, as parents, we find ourselves training teachers on basic adaptation principals.

We probably can't fix the "perverse incentives" problem -- especially because we don't know what they are. Instead we need to find ways to put pressure on local principals, so they provide the leadership to address the training and incentive side of the problem.

[1] Almost everything that's true of medicine is also true of education - and vice-versa.

See also