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Spring 2007 Table of Contents
Versión Español de este artículo (Spanish Version)

TAKS-Alt: The Times&They Are A-Changin' for Assessing Students with Significant Cognitive Disabilities

By Peggy Miller, Deafblind Specialist/ Speech-language Pathologist, Texas School for the Deaf, Austin, TX

Abstract: This article provides an overview of TAKS-Alt, the new statewide assessment in Texas for students with significant cognitive disabilities. It also provides suggestions to help teachers, administrators, and parents prepare for the changes.

Key Words: Programming, blind, visually impaired, deafblind, assessment, TAKS, TEKS, TAKS-Alt, LDAA, NCLB

  • Teacher: TAKS for my students? You are asking me to do WHAT???
  • Parent: I'm thrilled! We're raising the bar for my daughter's education!
  • Administrator: Who will do this? When? Why? How? Will it go away?

The quotes above are from real people who are sharing the adventure of the new statewide assessment for students with significant cognitive disabilities called TAKS-Alt (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills - Alternate). This past November, twelve teachers in the Special Needs Department at Texas School for the Deaf (TSD) completed assessments for the TAKS-Alt Pilot on twelve students, grades 3 through 11 in Reading or English Language Arts (ELA). It was time-intensive, challenging, frustrating, interesting, surprising and more; we made mistakes and called TEA many times for clarification. We are now preparing for more assessments across more subject areas for the TAKS-Alt Field Test to begin this January. This article is written to give a brief overview of TAKS-Alt with some suggestions learned from TSD's participation in the Pilot administration of this test. Our task was made considerably easier by having so many people to support us. Even if you are the sole special educator in your district, please know that you are not alone in this adventure!

Background

These are exciting and challenging times in special education. As Dr. Diane Browder from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte said at a recent workshop in Austin, Nationally, we are being asked to move to a new house and take the best of teaching practices from the past and bring them into a future where we are adding academic content to functional skills curriculums for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. As part of this move, new assessment practices for these students are required by federal law, specifically, The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001. NCLB requires that all states include students with disabilities in state assessment systems. THIS IS A BIG CHANGE!!!

Texas' state assessment is the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) and the state curriculum is the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS). The Student Assessment division of the Texas Education Agency (TEA) developed the TAKS-Alt to comply with federal law. Beginning in January 2007, more than 1, 000 school districts in Texas will be required to participate in the Field Test for TAKS-Alt. This translates to assessing more than 40,000 students who are receiving special education instruction and who meet all five of the following participation criteria developed by TEA.

The student:

  • requires supports to access the general curriculum that may include assistance involving communication, response style, physical access, or daily living skills, and
  • requires direct, intensive, individualized instruction in a variety of settings to accomplish the acquisition, maintenance and generalization of skills, and
  • accesses and participates in the grade-level Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) through activities that focus on prerequisite skills, and
  • demonstrates knowledge and skills routinely in class by methods other than paper and pencil tasks, and
  • demonstrates performance objectives that may include real life applications of the grade-level TEKS as appropriate to the student's abilities and needs.

The state will no longer be recognizing the functional Locally Determined Alternative Assessments (LDAA) that are traditionally given to students with the most severe cognitive disabilities. Districts no longer have the option to use their own locally determined assessment protocol such as Student Portfolio Assessment, the BRIGANCE, or Student Performance Indicators; schools must follow state standards for assessment. The state will evaluate the results from the TAKS-Alt Field Tests for students with severe cognitive disabilities and set a standard for passing. TAKS-Alt will be fully operational beginning with the 2007-2008 school year and it is definitely with us for the future!

What exactly is TAKS-Alt?

The Alt in TAKS-Alt represents alternate achievement standards. Students with significant cognitive disabilities are mandated to have access to the general education curriculum; in Texas this is the TEKS. These students will be assessed using alternative achievement standards. TAKS-Alt is linked to grade-level TEKS that are reduced or modified to reflect prerequisite skills. TAKS-Alt is not a pencil-and-paper test for students. Instead, it is based on teacher observations that occur during teacher-designed activities that are scored using the TAKS-Alt Rubric. Each activity must relate to an essence statement developed by TEA; these statements summarize the TEKS knowledge and skills statement and student expectations for each TAKS-tested objective. All of the results are entered on-line through the TEA website for TAKS-Alt. That's a lot of new vocabulary to understand!

Here is how it may look for one activity for reading for a 3rd grade student:

  • TAKS Objective: The student will demonstrate a basic understanding of culturally diverse written texts.
  • TEKS Knowledge and Skills Statement: 3.8 The student develops an extensive vocabulary
  • Essence Statement: Expands vocabulary
  • Prerequisite skill: The teacher reviews the links to the TEKS provided by TEA and determines her student can be assessed on this prerequisite skill - use new vocabulary in everyday communication
  • Activity: The teacher designs a specific activity for assessing this skill that must include at least three measurable and observable predetermined criteria. The teacher assesses the student on these criteria, scores performance, offers an opportunity for generalization if appropriate, and enters the results (with supporting data) on-line.

Which subject areas are assessed?

TAKS-Alt follows the same requirements for TAKS testing. Consequently, subject areas are assessed at enrolled grade levels as follows:.

  • 3rd Grade: Reading, Math
  • 4th Grade: Reading, Math, Writing
  • 5th Grade: Reading, Math, Science
  • 6th Grade: Reading, Math
  • 7th Grade: Reading Math, Writing
  • 8th Grade: Reading, Math, Social Studies, Science
  • 9th Grade: Reading, Math
  • 10th Grade: English Language Arts (ELA), Math, Social Studies, Science
  • Exit Level/11th Grade: English Language Arts (ELA), Math, Social Studies, Science

What do teachers need to do to make this happen?

Teachers must complete training modules on-line before administering the test. Modules 1, 2 & 3 are available to anyone interested in TAKS-Alt; parents are encouraged to take a look, too. You can access these through <http://pearson.learn.com>. Module 4 is about the actual on-line assessment tool that is available to teachers conducting the test during the testing window which is January through April 2007 for the Field Test. All data must be finalized on-line during the submission window from April 2 through April 13, 2007.

: the TEKS Curriculum Framework, TEKS Vertical Alignment, and TEKS-Based Examples of Instructional Activities. You can access these directly at this site: <http://tea.texas.gov/student.assessment/resources/taksalt/>.

How many activities are required to assess a student?

Many, many, many! For the Field Test this spring, teachers are required to create four activities per subject area. To give you an idea of this task, a student qualifying for TAKS-Alt testing enrolled in the fourth grade taking the Field Test will be assessed on four activities that the teacher developed in each of these subjects: reading, math and writing (12 total activities). A student in the 10th grade will be assessed on four activities in each of these subjects: ELA, Math, Science, and Social Studies (16 total).

Beginning in the 2007-2008 school year, teachers will be required to assess their students on six activities per subject area linked to state and teacher selected essence statements. That means, for example, that a teacher who has a 10th grade student qualifying for TAKS-Alt will create a total of 24 activities for that one student and assess, record, and score performance using the TAKS-Alt protocol. In reality, we know that many classrooms for students with significant disabilities are multi-age and contain more than one student. Teachers may find that they have to create 50 to 100 activities! Keep in mind that many activities can be used or modified for other students and other subject areas.

How will I, as a teacher, accomplish all of this? Here are some suggestions:

Acknowledge that this first year is a challenge for all of us.

It does get easier after you learn the lingo and go through the process for one activity. Look at what you are already doing through a different pair of glasses and you may find you can link some of what you are teaching your students to a TEKS pre-requisite skill. Expect that this will be the most difficult for students with the most profound disabilities at the presymbolic level. For these students, creative minds need to come together and task-analyze the most basic of skills to link them to grade-level TEKS. Try your best to maintain a positive attitude - take it one TEKS essence statement at a time!

Be prepared.

Become very familiar with the resources TEA provides; these are very valuable. Go back and review the training modules as often as needed. Although the modules state they can be reviewed in 30-35 minutes, our teachers found they needed much more time to access the important links provided for the resources and documents that are used to create and administer the test. Plan and participate in additional trainings, including those offered on TEKS-based instruction. Manage time wisely. The average time teachers in the Pilot said it took to go through the process of creating one activity for one essence statement was three hours, not including the actual time doing the activity with the student. Some districts funded extra, paid workdays this year; we used our full day in-services, after school training times, and planning periods for our teachers. Begin thinking about a plan for next year; you will have a better idea of what is needed after completing the Field Test this spring. The good news is that the essence statements will be available to all districts by the time school begins next fall, so teachers can begin early and have most of the year to complete TAKS-Alt. TSD is looking ahead at who will train new teachers, how to maintain a database of activities created, and how many in-service days will be needed for activity development and review of the important concepts.

Connect with others.

on this topic; check the TEA website for more information at <http://tea.texas.gov/student.assessment/resources/taksalt/>. If you cannot attend the TETN, you can download the presentations from the website. We immersed ourselves in whatever anyone had to offer on the subject and always found something helpful to use.

Don't be reluctant to contact TEA directly.

Pat Otto, Debbie Owens, Janet Borel and the team at the Student Assessment Division are available to answer questions and clarify information. We contacted them many times, and following the Pilot, we invited them to speak to our staff regarding a variety of questions that came up. In a positive, non-critical way, they reviewed some of our activities and helped us to see where there was room for improvement. They can be reached at (512) 463-9536 or through email at <>, <> or <>.

Download the key documents.

We found it helpful to spiral bind separately the Curriculum Framework and Examples of Instructional Activities for each grade level and subject for easier reference; be sure to copy the Essence Statements, too. Our teachers have several binders of TAKS-Alt information. Print the data collection form you want to use and the hierarchy of prompts and cues; keep these with you when you assess your student. Study the rubric carefully before scoring your student. Enlist support from others to print the volumes of information needed; this is costly. Find a system that works for you!

Expect glitches and mistakes to happen, as this is in its infant stages.

Lots of little bugs are being worked out based on suggestions and feedback from the districts that participated in the Pilot. TEA takes the suggestions seriously and makes changes within the constraints of the law that mandates assessing students across the scope and breadth of the general education curriculum. But, no, they are not going to reduce the number of essence statements. They are, however, prepared to provide more examples of activities available to view on-line, and they are encouraging all of us to send them tools, tips and ideas so they can be shared statewide.

And most of all . . .

Focus on the students!

We were surprised by what some of our students were able to do on modified academic tasks. While this is a big challenge and a shift in thinking for many of us who are concerned about our students not getting enough time to learn important functional skills, remember you are not being asked to throw out all the good things that you have been doing for your students. You are being called to set the bar higher and find ways for them to have access to the curriculum taught to their peers. While not an easy task, I do believe special educators are among the most creative and brilliant of educators. By putting our heads together, we can adjust to these changing times and make something good happen for our special students!

Figure 1 - TAKS Requirements for Subject Areas

Grade

ELA

Reading

Math

Writing

Social Studies

Science

3rd


X

X




4th


X

X

X



5th


X

X



X

6th


X

X




7th


X

X

X



8th


X

X


X

X

9th


X

X




10th

X


X


X

X

Exit Level (11th)

X


X


X

X