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CalSTAT Technical Assistance and Training

IDEAS that Work!California Department of Education, Special Education Division’s special project, California Services for Technical Assistance and Training (CalSTAT) is funded through a contract with the Napa County Office of Education. CalSTAT is partially funded from federal funds, State Grants #H027A080116A. Additional federal funds are provided from a federal competitively awarded State Personnel Development Grant to California (#H323A070011) provided from the U.S. Department of Education Part D of the Individuals with Disabilities Education act (IDEA). Opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the U. S. Department of Education.

The Special EDge

Winter 2013 Volume 26, Number 1

Topic: Supports for Successful Student Engagement

Article List

Framing the Focus:

NASDSE Conference Highlights Key Issues

Directors from state special education departments across the country agree: schools everywhere face significant challenges in educating students with disabilities. How can stakeholders, for example, ensure that every student benefits from the academic rigor promised in the Common Core State Standards (CCSS)? How will assessments for those standards be designed so that all students have the chance to demonstrate what they know, all teachers can prove the effectiveness of their instruction, and all schools become accountable for the educational growth of every student? How are states going to work with the federal government to move beyond a compliance-driven system of accountability and focus on student learning and improvement—while maintaining procedural safeguards?

The 2012 annual conference of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE) focused on many of these issues. The complications are daunting, especially with most states facing significant financial challenges. How will the massive coordinated effort required to implement the CCSS, for example, be realized on limited budgets? The prospect of the twenty-first century classroom, however, is exciting. Technology promises to make instruction and assessment accessible for all students. The pending rigorous new standards have already inspired many forward-thinking administrators and teachers to incorporate research-based practices into their curriculum and instruction, thus ensuring quality—and equity. And states are working together with the federal government to ensure that laws guard student rights without imposing unrealistic standards on teachers, schools, and states. This issue of The Special EDge provides an overview of these and other pressing topics that affect students with disabilities. The 2012 annual conference of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education addressed key issues facing special education today.

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Letter from the State Director By Fred Balcom,

Director, California Department of Education, Special Education Division

"This year's NASDSE conference was an opportunity to sharpen the saw."

In October of 2012, California hosted the 74th annual conference for the National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE); I was honored to have my colleagues from other states experience California. This year's conference was exceptionally rewarding, and the topics covered in this issue of The Special EDge include those we discussed during the conference. All are equally important, relevant, and worthy of our collective attention.

It is very easy to get caught up in our day-to-day work—there is so much to be done in special education. In the never-ending pressure to address issues as they emerge, we sometimes fail to take a step back and focus on the big picture. As Stephen Covey would say, we sometimes fail to "sharpen the saw" because we are too busy sawing. As a result, we become weary, exhausted, and consumed by our daily tasks. This year's NASDSE conference was an opportunity to "sharpen the saw"—to stop momentarily from grinding away at the most urgent items on our desks and instead take the time to focus our energies on initiatives across the nation that promote a better system for our students with disabilities.

The implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and its impact on children with special needs has been the subject of much discussion in recent months. The NASDSE conference featured a panel of representatives from various national consortia developing assessments for the CCSS. This was of special interest to California, as we recently joined the National Center and State Collaborative (NCSC) consortia as a Tier II state. A project led by 27 states, the NCSC is committed to creating professional development modules and curriculum/instruction resources, alternative achievement standards, and a multistate comprehensive assessment system for students with significant cognitive disabilities. We are very pleased to be part of this project and my staff is working with local partners to ensure success.

The California School for the Blind (CSB) provided another highlight at the NASDSE conference. Several staff from the CSB participated in a panel presentation on assistive technology for students with visual impairments. Technology continues to advance rapidly and provide increased opportunity for learning that can reach all children, even those with unique challenges. However, knowing that the technology exists is only one step in the process, and CSB staff artfully delivered that message. Indeed, effectively teaching all students and creating classroom environments that are flexible and responsive to all styles of learning consistent with the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework (see insert) is first and foremost.

Overall, the NASDSE conference provided me with an invigorating sense of purpose. From hearing about successful multitiered systems of support to promises of increased collaboration from federal officials, we all gained new insights, tools, and perspectives to charge forward with our work. By taking the time to sharpen the saw, we sharpened our sense of what really needs to be done for all our students. — Fred Balcom

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The State of Special Education Reform

How is California moving forward with educational reform in the face of the challenges of implementing the Common Core State Standards and the uncertainties related to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act?

California ranks low in the percentage of its students, including students with disabilities, who are able to score at a basic level or above in reading and mathematics. State and local leaders are banking on current and pending reform efforts to improve these numbers.

Common Core State Standards

The Common Core State Standards, with their emphasis on college and career readiness, represent one of California's most ambitious educational overhauls. This initiative, with its focus on academic rigor, critical thinking, and Universal Design for Learning (see the insert to this issue), promises higher standards and the potential for improving academic outcomes for students with disabilities. California's Special Education Division is working hard to ensure that special education stakeholders are represented at the front end of efforts to design the new curriculum for the Common Core and its accompanying assessments (see the article on page 12)—and not treated as an afterthought.

Reauthorizing NCLB

For schools nationwide, a great deal hinges on what happens with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). When reauthorized in 2001 as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the law spotlighted achievement for every child. As a result, schools mustered unprecedented energies toward ensuring educational benefit for students with disabilities, in part because it was the right thing to do, but also because their scores were suddenly included in the annual school "report card" (the measurement called Adequate Yearly Progress or AYP) that was required by NCLB. However, the law also requires that every student achieve grade-level proficiency by 2014, a goal that is, for all intents and purposes, unachievable. According to Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) President Tom Luna, because of NCLB, "schools have numerous ways to fail but few avenues to demonstrate success . . . [the law's] rigid accountability system has become a stumbling block to state and local education reforms."1

Teacher Education Reform

Sixty-two percent of new teachers feel unprepared for the realities of the classroom.2 In response, the CCSSO is proposing reforms that align the education and preparation of teachers with the Common Core State Standards.3 The federal government has also launched a professional development initiative in its new RESPECT project (RESPECT stands for Recognizing Educational Success, Professional Excellence, and Collaborative Teaching), which focuses on continuous learning and collaboration among teachers and school administrators.

Every parent and educator will be waiting to see how these major initiatives come together to support students; and every one of them will be invested in the outcome.


California's Plans for Implementing the Common Core State Standards can be found at

The current blueprint for reauthorizing NCLB can be found at

Information about the RESPECT Project can be found at


  1. Congress_to_Reauthorize_ESEA_Before_House_Committee.html

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A Results-Driven System of Accountability: Making Student Progress the Focus

Special education laws have changed from simply ensuring access to education for students with disabilities to emphasizing educational benefit. How are requirements continuing to be refined to best serve students?

NASDSE President Peg Brown-Clark admits that "None of us can stand up proudly and say that we're happy about the results that we're seeing" for students with disabilities. "I think there are pockets of good things going on, but we need the whole wardrobe, not just a pocket or two."

The U.S. Department of Education (ED) recently announced new steps to help develop the "full wardrobe." The need is clear. In the 37 years since special education has been law, educational outcomes for students with disabilities have not significantly improved. In response, the ED is moving away from a compliance-focused approach to monitoring to what it is calling a more balanced system that looks at the progress students are making. The department acknowledges that federal policy has focused too much on procedural requirements and not enough on those things that matter most—academic performance and graduation rates for students with disabilities. "For too long we've been a compliance-driven bureaucracy when it comes to educating students with disabilities," said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. "We have to expect the very best from our students—and tell the truth about student performance—so that we can give all students the supports and services they need. The best way to do that is by focusing on results."1 Throughout the coming year, the ED will work closely with stakeholders to develop and implement a new review system that takes a more balanced approach to assessing how states are educating students with disabilities.

Educational Outcomes

Melody Musgrove, director of the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), sees this as a "time of incredible opportunity." When she spoke at the October 2012 NASDSE conference, she said that "the current process [that the federal government uses to monitor state education systems] does not tell us how effective states are in educating their children with disabilities." So OSEP is working "to make sure that we do get the kind of outcomes that we know children with disabilities and their families are entitled to. . . . The data tell us that we can achieve our goals if we make up our minds to do so. What we focus on is what improves." This new focus involves a change in the kind of data that are gathered and that drives decisions about where resources are placed and how schools, districts, and states are monitored and evaluated.


OSEP's plans are ambitious; its vision is to have all components of its system of accountability aligned to support states in their efforts to improve results for infants, toddlers, children, and youth with disabilities and their families. This results-driven system of accountability (RDA) will be built around seven core principles:

1. RDA will be developed in partnership with key stakeholders: other federal agencies, state agencies, the private sector, parent and professional organizations, and organizations of persons with disabilities. 2. RDA will be transparent and understandable to states and the general public, especially individuals with disabilities and their families. 3. RDA will drive improved outcomes for all children, regardless of age, disability, race/ethnicity, language, gender, socioeconomic status, or location. 4. RDA will ensure the protection of the individual rights of all children and youths with a disability and their families. 5. RDA will provide differentiated incentives, supports, and interventions based on each state's unique strengths, progress, challenges, and needs; it will direct resources toward the states that are most in need of support. 6. RDA will encourage states to direct their own resources to where they can have the greatest impact on outcomes and the protection of individual rights for all children and youth with disabilities and minimize state burden and duplication of effort. 7. RDA will be responsive to the needs and expectations of the ultimate consumers: students with disabilities and their families.


According to Musgrove, "this is a system that will evolve over time. . . . If we don't get it exactly right from the beginning we're going to acknowledge that and fix it as we go along. We must develop a system that can be flexible." Musgrove adds that "we don't pretend it's easy to move states away from a compliance-based" system of monitoring to one that is outcomes based, and she acknowledges that it will require a "strategic transformation at the federal level as well as at the state, district, county, and school level." One of the outstanding questions is how this is going to be done with diminishing resources.

Musgrove is calling for strong leadership within every educational sector to help make OSEP's vision a reality. She accepts the challenge at the federal level to create a positive and supportive monitoring process that is not punitive, that creates incentives for "the sorts of behaviors that we know are important," and that helps states achieve their goals and improve their results.

Expectations As with any new process, there is some uncertainty as to how RDA will play out. Advocates trust that schools will continue to be monitored to ensure that students with disabilities have an individualized education program that actively ensures their right to a free, appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment. Educators hope that the achievement data that the ED chooses as the basis of its new monitoring system actually reflects what students will need to know and be able to do in order to transition successfully into adult life. States are looking forward to a system that focuses on truly important issues and that doesn't solely add more requirements to the existing system. At best, the RDA effort just might reflect at the federal level the kind of wholesale restructuring that may be needed for all students to benefit from their education—the original intent of IDEA.



1. "Department Announces New Effort to Strengthen Accountability for Students with Disabilities," at

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Collaboration at the Highest Levels:
Federal Offices Hope to Set the Standard

The United States has fallen from first to sixteenth in college completion rates worldwide. The U.S. Department of Education is struggling to redeem the reputation of its public schools. Will federal collaboration efforts help?

If you were to catch a couple of unguarded policy wonks talking "education," you just might hear a few disparaging remarks about the reauthorized version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB): "The law's one-size-fits-all approach to education makes too much out of test scores." "NCLB's proficiency requirements are draconian." "Did you see that August 2012 Gallup Poll? Most people now think NCLB has made education worse, not better."

The U.S. Department of Education (ED) has not been deaf to such criticisms. And even though the law—and its requirement that all students achieve grade-level proficiency by 2014—has not yet been reauthorized (and the requirement repealed), the ED aspires to address the concerns and conundrums created by this particular piece of legislation.

Deb Delisle, assistant secretary of the U.S. Office of Elementary and Secondary Education (OESE) and Michael Yudin, acting assistant secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services (OSERS), spoke at the October 2012 NASDSE conference about their aspirations. The two departments, representing general education and special education respectively, are working at the federal level to accomplish a number of very ambitious goals.

For one, they want to "collapse all of our monitoring into one component" so that the oversight requirements—of NCLB, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Title 3, Title 1, and other laws—are not separate but instead represent a coordinated effort. Essentially they want to "come up with a team that [takes charge of each] state and that monitors once." And they want to move the requirement of educating each child in the least restrictive environment (LRE) away from strict issues of placement and "toward responding to the needs of the child." In response to the national criticism of NCLB, they are offering some flexibility in the form of waivers to "take some of the pressure off the system." Under these waivers, schools can "create new annual measureable objectives for kids with disabilities," said Yudin. "Then you target your efforts and resources to meet those objectives."

Many educators agree with Yudin's belief that conditions in the country beg for change. Most special educators and parents know too well the grim prospects facing children with disabilities, who are more likely than their peers to be among the 7,000 youth who drop out of school each day; and they are less likely to pursue postsecondary education, less likely to be employed, and three times more likely to live in poverty. The need to educate all students so they are ready to go on to college or career creates both the moral and economic imperative that is driving the partnership efforts between OESE and OSERS.

Ready for School

The departments are working together on the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge, which is designed to bring together all early learning initiatives—Head Start, IDEA Part C, Child Care—to reconcile their different funding streams and regulations so they can work together effectively to "create systems that improve access to high-quality early learning for high-needs kids." This coordinated system would ensure parents that infants and toddlers with disabilities would receive early intervening services and, as a result, be more likely to start kindergarten ready to learn.

Waivers from NCLB Rather than wait for NCLB to be reauthorized, ED is designing a system that moves away from a compliance-based system of accountability (see article p. 4) and toward one that focuses on student growth and achievement. As a corollary to this effort, ED has invited each state educational agency (SEA) to request flexibility on behalf of itself, its local educational agencies, and its schools in order to better focus on improving student learning and increasing the quality of instruction. ED wants to give educators and state and local leaders flexibility on some of NCLB's specific requirements in exchange for state-developed plans designed to improve educational outcomes for all students, close achievement gaps, increase equity, and improve the quality of instruction.

How this plays out for California remains to be seen. In a letter to ED, California's State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson wrote that the current law "is no longer useful for identifying which schools need improvement or for intervening appropriately in those schools."1 Last year, 66 percent of California's public schools did not meet NCLB targets. The state applied in May for the waiver from the law's one-size-fits-all system of "escalating proficiency targets and associated sanctions,"2 asking the federal government to stop labeling its schools as failing, to give districts flexibility on how to spend federal funds, and to allow educators to use state rather than federal measures for academic improvement. California is one of nearly 40 states that have applied for this kind of waiver. As of this writing, the status of California's waiver is pending.


Many educators and policymakers see our school system at a crossroads. The formerly separate systems—general education and special education—have a chance to come together, particularly around the rollout of the Common Core State Standards and their accompanying assessments. There is some hope that, if collaboration and integration around overall accountability requirements can be effected at the federal level, then systems at the state, district, and school levels will be more readily able to follow suit.

The notion of collaboration has been around for years. Systems are still functionally separate in most places. If the federal government can model a coordinated way of doing things, true change just might be around the corner.




Multitiered Systems of Support

Three-tiered systems of support have been used for years to improve student outcomes. What happens when an entire school district uses the tiered approach to coordinate every part of its system? Kansas may provide some answers.

Gurus come and go; leadership changes; fads fade—but sometimes a good idea deserves to stick around. How does a school district preserve those things that are worth keeping? In effect, how can success be made part of an enduring system? The Kansas Department of Education set out to create just such a system by developing a school district-based model that is both familiar and innovative. The familiar part looks like response to intervention (RtI) and positive behavior supports (PBS): three-tiered instructional systems that are informed by data, based on research, and focused on improving outcomes for all students. But what's new about Kansas' system is the comprehensiveness of its approach.

Many schools and districts decide to change their systems by addressing either behavior or academics, only to discover that both are necessary for student success. And most schools and districts patch together initiatives that arise from different sources and different needs. Educational leaders in Kansas wanted something else, and they were inspired by the work of Michael Fullan, who argues for the importance of unity and coherence among all systems. Kansas took Fullan to heart and, while it focused on what its school system could control—coherence from the state level on down—it developed a district-wide, multitiered system of support (MTSS) that aligns (1) key national, state, and local goals; (2) curriculum, instruction, and assessment; and (3) academics and behavior. The design and scope of this effort are garnering significant national attention.


The Kansas MTSS was built upon a number of practices that are not new to education:

The promise of the Kansas approach to MTSS lies in its cohesion, its concentration on best practices, its underlying philosophies, and its unrelenting focus on student engagement and achievement.

Critical Components

The educational leaders in Kansas were convinced that what they were creating was not "the next new magic bullet." This was "the real deal," in their words, the culmination of the last 30 years of research that has identified what districts, schools, and teachers must—and can—do to successfully educate all students. And they understood that everyone needed to be patient in the roll-out: the school district that was selected to adopt the model was given a full five years to implement it.


This district, Wichita Public Schools, faced a daunting set of circumstances. Its student enrollment was large (51,000). Student achievement had "flat-lined." Student poverty levels were high (73 percent of students qualified for free and reduced lunch). Student populations were diverse (33 percent white, 33 percent Hispanic, 20 percent African American, 20 languages spoken). And just for good measure, schools statewide were suffering from significant budget reductions at all levels, leaving districts trying to manage cuts amounting to tens of millions of dollars a year.

Changing the Culture

Despite these challenges, MTSS's designers worked from certain convictions about human nature: that people want to be involved in meaningful work; they want to be part of something bigger than themselves; they want to be good at their jobs. The new plan also included intense efforts to build trust prior to making decisions and found inspiration from such notables in the field of systems change as Megan Tschannen-Moran and Margaret Wheatley. And finally, critical to a successful beginning was information—and lots of it. Everyone in the district was involved in the plan, knew the plan well in advance of its implementation, and knew there would be plenty of time and support.

The Hurricane

This effort to create an "empowering culture" is one of three parts of what Kansas is calling "the hurricane," the outside frame of its logo that depicts the critical areas that must be in place for the work of the inner sections to be successful. Leadership is another part of the hurricane.

This type of system change requires strong and focused leadership at both the state and district levels, committed individuals who are able to articulate that "this is where we're heading," who are "willing to listen to the people doing the work in the field, and then who are able to create something new by looking at the research," according to John Allen, superintendent of the Wichita school district.

Professional development is yet another part of the hurricane and focuses on ensuring that everyone in the system has the knowledge and skills to do the work required to realize student success. This component involves more than just teachers, however. Union leaders, school board members, and noninstructional staff members all influence students and all had to be trained in the new system so that everyone understood the goals and the process for meeting them and everyone "spoke the same language."

Pyramid of Support

Most educators will recognize the pyramid at the center of the model that Kansas developed. That tiered approach has proven to be a successful model for both RtI and PBS: providing general instruction and supports to all students in the general education classroom, giving targeted instruction and supports to some students who struggle, and ensuring intense supports for the few students who cannot otherwise succeed.


Both RtI and PBS rely heavily on data. So it's no surprise that at the core of the MTSS approach is the "actionable use of formative assessments." Teachers and administrators are trained in reading the "data picture" that emerges from the coordinated systems that chart academics and behavior, and they use this data to make decisions about what to do at the classroom, school, and district levels. This system provides a common vocabulary, common assessments, and common understanding of assessment results throughout the district. The process of assessing student achievement during instruction determines whether an instructional program is effective. When tests show that students are not progressing, the instructional program is changed.

The Results

The MTSS in Kansas is still being rolled out, and there is no final verdict on whether or not the success that the state is working toward can be realized, systematized, and then replicated. Will this total district overhaul be worth it? Inasmuch as the MTSS framework uses proven educational strategies, this Kansas effort will definitely be worth following.


Key People

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Connecting Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports with School Mental Health

Nationally, one in five youth has a mental health condition; 70 percent of these young people receive no treatment; and suicide is the fourth leading cause of death for this age group.1 How can schools effectively deal with issues of mental health?

Schools have become a primary source of mental health services to students. There simply is no other way to reach many children and youth, to detect their need for mental health services, and to provide the necessary supports. And while special education does provide services to students who have an emotional or behavioral disability (EBD), the identification of children who suffer from this condition is difficult; and academic outcomes for these students, even when correctly identified, have been historically poor.

The Issue

For years, the U.S. Surgeon General has been calling for schools to assume a "role related to both positive mental health (e.g., promotion of social and emotional development) and mental health problems (psychosocial concerns and mental disorders) of students, their families, and school staff."2 The need is particularly urgent in schools that serve low-income children. According to UCLA's Policy Leadership Cadres for Mental Health in Schools, the number of students with psychosocial problems "in many schools serving low-income populations has climbed over the 50 percent mark."3

This charge for schools to assume the role of primary mental health services provider is daunting under the best of circumstances. Most schools in California today face other significant challenges—performance requirements, drastic budget cuts, and federal sanctions, to name just a few. How is it possible for them to take on one more responsibility?

Community of Practice on School Behavioral Health

The IDEA Partnership and the Center for School Mental Health (CSMH) have established a national community of practice (CoP) on school behavioral health in an effort to address the need for comprehensive mental health services in schools. This CoP has brought together 30 organizations, 16 states, and 12 practice groups to formulate recommendations for developing both a structure and a process for schools to effectively provide mental health services to students and mental health supports for families.

A Shared Agenda

The CoP calls for an increasingly shared agenda between the school system and the public mental health system, insisting that children's social-emotional and mental health needs would be better served if the systems worked together with family and youth organizations to create a coordinated and comprehensive approach to providing mental health services, one that would include "prevention programs, early identification of and interventions for children at risk of developing emotional problems, and intensive interventions and services for students with serious disturbances." In fact, the CoP insists that "the complex and multiple needs of children facing significant mental health challenges cannot be met without a shared agenda."4

Existing Systems

Along with its belief that "it takes a system," the CoP holds that mental health is not just for students diagnosed with EBD, and it's not just a special education issue. Because of the high rate of undiagnosed problems, the mental health of all students needs to be supported. The CoP recommends a multitiered system of support for schools to better serve students, and the good news is that this system already exists in many places. Thousands of schools across the country have some kind of multitiered framework that addresses either behavior (positive behavior supports, or PBS) or academics (response to intervention, or RtI). The CoP advocates incorporating a concerted focus on mental health into these existing structures.

A national data study shows that, when used with fidelity, a multitiered system of support helps all students, even the most vulnerable. Schools reduce their rates of discipline referrals as a whole, and the rates of referrals for students who may be eligible for special education services (students with an individualized education program) also decline. Students who have been over-represented in special education show even greater reduction in behavioral problems.

The widely recognized three-tiered structure prevents problems at its first tier by creating systems of support that include parenting programs, explicit instruction to all students on social and problem-solving skills, and training for teachers and staff on how to support positive behavior in the classroom and in the school. The second tier involves early intervention at the first sign of a problem and the use of only high-fidelity strategies and supports to address the problem. The third tier provides intense and sustained services and supports for children who show severe, persistent, or chronic emotional and behavioral disabilities.

Changing Habits

The major hurdle for schools involves changing habits. According to Lucille Eber from OSEP's Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, people are in the habit of delivering the services they're used to delivering, not necessarily those that produce results. She believes that "we know what works. The trick is to get people to do what works." Proven strategies embedded in a multitiered system include creating a context that ensures that students experience success; creating consistent and predictable environments; and coaching new behaviors for both students and school staff so that everyone gets to work through the cycle of "teach, practice, reinforce."

When implemented with integrity, this type of prevention-based system has shown itself to be successful in providing effective interventions for students most at risk for mental health issues, in further strengthening the health of students not at risk, and in ultimately promoting school success for all.


Join the National Community of Practice on School Behavioral Health at

Mental Health, Schools and Families Working Together for All Children and Youth: Toward a Shared Agenda is at

RENEW (Rehabilitation for Empowerment, Natural Supports, Education and Work), a model program for behavioral supports in schools, is at

Schoolwide Positive Behavior Supports: Primary Systems and Practices is at


  1. Achieving the Promise: Transforming Mental Health Care in America is at
  2. Report of the Surgeon General's Conference on Children's Mental Health: A National Agenda at
  3. Policy Leadership Cadre for Mental Health in Schools is at
  4. Mental Health, Schools, and Families Working Together for All Children and Youth is at

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Assessments Aligned with the New Standards

Few aspects of education are changing as fast as assessments. In light of the soon-to-be-adopted Common Core State Standards, how will the next generation of assessments work and how will students with disabilities be included?

Forget about using paper-and-pencil tests to assess student knowledge and progress. And forget about plotting the results on a traditional bell curve. That's all so twentieth century. The new assessments that are being developed for the Common Core State Standards will be technology-driven—even custom-tailored for individual students. They will emphasize individual growth for each student, and they will build in many of the accommodations that students with disabilities currently require.

A host of collaboratives and consortia are designing and field-testing assessments that align with the Common Core. Because assessments everywhere will be based on the same standards, states are working together and can potentially share assessments. California is a member of the 25-state Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and an affiliate of the National Center and State Collaborative (NCSC). Smarter Balanced is developing general education assessments in English language arts/literacy and math that will serve most students with special needs as well; NCSC is developing alternative assessments for students with significant cognitive disabilities.

All of these groups wrestle with some of the same questions: "What does it mean to develop twenty-first century assessments?" and "How do we make these tests more meaningful for students with disabilities?"

Smarter Balanced

The "balanced" in the Smarter Balanced consortium's approach means creating a system of assessments that supports the core content at three levels: formative, interim, and summative.

The formative and interim assessments use technology that customizes the test for individual students, adjusting the difficulty of questions throughout the test, based on the student's responses. A student who answers a question correctly, for example, will receive a more challenging next question, while an incorrect answer results in an easier question. Despite these adjustments, the assessment continues to measure the same skills and knowledge and can quickly identify which skills students have mastered and which they have not. This then allows classroom teachers to use the data from an interim assessment to differentiate instruction and to determine when it's necessary to review content and when it's time to move on to new material.

Principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL; see insert) are being incorporated to make the tests accessible to students with disabilities, but all students will benefit. Michael Hock, Vermont's director of educational assessment and a member of the Smarter Balanced executive committee, uses the example of an elevator in a multi-story building: while it's available to everyone, and a great convenience for most, it is absolutely essential for some—an individual in a wheelchair, for example. Similarly, supports embedded in an assessment—such as calculators, text-to-speech or speech-to-text software, and the ability to highlight critical features and change font size or background color—are there for all students but may only be needed by those with disabilities. "If you build a good assessment for all kids, it will include things that are essential to special education," says Hock.

These embedded accessibility tools will replace many previously required accommodations, allow students' disabilities to be less noticeable, and "go a long way towards preserving their self-esteem," says Hock, a former special education teacher. The test is on the computer; everyone is wearing headphones; no one stands out. For some students, "we're still going to need to combine embedded tools with accommodations, but we're trying to minimize that."

Additional technological advances include a "personal needs and preferences" profile, which tells the computer what a student needs in order to take the test, and the "accessible, portable item profile" (APIC), which can code individual test items. "APIC is the least sexy part of this whole thing, but it's what makes the system work," says Hock, "It tells the computer how to handle the item, how to deliver an individual item to a particular student." If all of this sounds futuristic, Hock assures us that "everything we're doing has been field tested on a large scale with kids. We know the benefits." The students who took the test were engaged, he says, "because they really felt they could show what they know."

National Center and State Collaborative

But not all students with disabilities will be able to participate in the general assessments, even with embedded supports. Students with significant cognitive disabilities—typically less than one percent of all students—require an alternate achievement standard and alternate assessments (AAS-AA) to measure their progress. This diverse group includes students with intellectual disabilities, autism, and multiple disabilities. The NCSC conducted an exhaustive two-year, 18-state study—the Learner Characteristics Inventory—that quantified the learning styles and capabilities of students who participated in AAS-AA. The primary purpose for gathering the data, according to the report, "is to examine the diversity within the population so that the assessment can be designed to include as many students as possible."1

The NCSC partners are asking additional questions: Is there a model of student learning on which to design an assessment for students with significant cognitive disabilities? What does it look like for these students to develop academic competence? It is, says NCSC Project Director Rachel Quenemoen, "the most difficult work we've ever done."

"As we think about building assessments that are accessible to all students," says Quenemoen, "we're also thinking about making curriculum and instruction accessible to all. The best assessment won't help if we can't get students to the material being tested." That's why the collaborative is developing a comprehensive model of curriculum, instruction, assessment, and professional development for educators. The model includes formative assessments and the appropriate use of interim data to monitor student progress and apply any needed interventions.

The team is building a technology-based assessment with 20 to 30 items and four levels of complexity that can help students demonstrate what they know and what they have learned. Similar to the other assessments being designed around the Common Core, it must be ready for full implementation in the 2014–2015 school year, when the new standards are scheduled to roll out.

Multiple Efforts

NCSC and Smarter Balanced have a number of cohorts in the field. PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) is developing assessments that provide teachers with the information they need to adjust instruction, individualize interventions, and fine-tune lessons throughout the school year. PARCC also places a strong emphasis on UDL. Similar to NCSC, Dynamic Learning Maps is developing an alternate assessment system, one that is designed to map a student's learning throughout the school year. WIDA (World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment) is looking after the needs of English language learners, including those with disabilities. What all of these groups have in common is the goal of designing assessments that use all of the tools at hand to allow all students to demonstrate what they know and have learned.



1. Towles-Reeves, E., Kearns, J., et al. (2010). Learner Characteristics Inventory Project Report. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, National Center and State Collaborative. Available at

Assistive Technology and Students with Visual Impairments

Expected to learn from a curriculum that is typically designed for sighted students, children who are blind or who have visual impairments depend heavily on technology. The California School for the Blind is working hard to give these students access.

Most children learn through observation and imitation; they access the world primarily through their vision. This experience—and the growth and development that results—is profoundly different for children who are blind or visually impaired. "They access the world by people bringing the world to them," says Adrian Amandi, assistive technology coordinator at the California School for the Blind (CSB). Technology staff at the CSB have devoted themselves to finding ways to use technology and to train teachers across the state to best support these students.

Necessary Supports

Technology is essential for students with visual impairments. It is their gateway to academic success, independence, and employment. The CSB stresses the importance of having each of these students assessed by an assistive technology specialist. One such specialist, James Carreon, says he will go to the student's school, perform an assessment, and recommend the appropriate equipment for that student. Once the school acquires the equipment, "I will train the student, the teacher, the parent . . . anyone who wants to learn."

Despite the importance of computers in this process, "designers of computers give very little thought to how blind students will use them," says Amandi. "They are designed for sighted people." To have access to the same curriculum today as their sighted classmates, students with visual impairments must have consistent, hands-on instruction in the technology itself. They need to learn everything about a computer that their sighted classmates learn and a great deal more. Even with Universal Design for Learning (see insert), which the CSB staff strongly supports, these students may, for example, need to perform a complex series of keyboard tasks to accomplish what a classmate can do just by pointing and clicking. Complicating matters is the constantly changing nature of technology, making it all the more essential for both students and teachers to be properly trained in the purpose and use of new assistive devices and software—and to keep things as up to date as possible.

And to keep an open mind. "When I first saw an iPad, I thought there's no way a blind person could use this device," says Carreon. "But I was wrong." The voiceover and zoom functions of an iPad, he says, can help students with compromised vision to access information.

Attention to Preferences

Individuals with visual impairments have access to two or three ways of gathering information—auditory (listening), tactile (through braille and touch), and possibly some visual. CSB staff stress the importance of providing technology that pairs the medium to the student's preference. With screen magnifiers, students with low vision may be able to use a mouse and access the computer in the same manner as their classmates. But students who are blind require additional support, and, we shouldn't "expect blind people to be 'listening [auditory] learners,'" says Jerry Kuns, a CSB technology coordinator who is himself blind. "I [for example] have to have the information through my fingertips." Electronic braille displays are essential for those students for whom braille is their primary learning medium, says Amandi. "If we put them on a computer [and expect them] to learn auditorily, that's our failure"

The cost of equipment can be steep. A Braille Note-taker (essentially a laptop without a screen), for example, can cost as much as $8,000. "It's very expensive to educate a blind person," says Kuns—but much less costly than "having a blind person dependent on the social system." Sharon Sacks, the CSB's director of curriculum, assessment, and staff development, says that 60 to 80 percent of people who are blind are unemployed or underemployed. Yet Kuns says he knows many individuals who are blind and who thrive in a variety of professional positions "because we have provided appropriate training." The key to job success for a person with visual impairments, he says, is "access to on-time, competitive information."

Carreon urges teachers of students with visual impairments to ensure Internet access for their students. "It's a complex process," he says, "and we need IT as part of the team." He also tells these teachers, "Do not accept hand-me-down computers. If they're no longer good for sighted students, they certainly aren't good for your students." For students with visual impairments to benefit from computers, the machines need to have fast processors that allow screen readers and screen magnifiers to run constantly. Computer also must have enough RAM to run multiple programs simultaneously and up-to-date software, which is necessary for screen readers to function.

The CSB provides services and support for the 6,000 California students whose primary learning needs stem from their visual impairment and for their teachers. The CSB's goal, says Sacks, "is to make sure that we have high expectations for our students." That means employing technology early—bringing a computer into the home well before a child starts school, investing money in the necessary supports, and providing consistent instruction so all students with visual impairments can realize their full potential.

The Technology Department at the California School for the Blind features on its Web site dozens of resources for students, teachers, and parents, including

Go to

Noteworthy accessibility devices include

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California Services for Technical Assistance and Training (CalSTAT)
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