Issue Date : Spring 2002
It was a bright May morning when Sam¹s (Samantha¹s) IEP team convened in the
elementary school¹s conference room. The team was composed of: Sam¹s
mother, Mrs. Lee; her Special Education teacher, Mrs. Karing; her General
Education teacher, Miss Fuller; the Principal, Mr. Wright; and the
District¹s Supervisor of Special Education, Dr. Elana Wise. Dr. Wise led
the meeting. When the meeting moved on to the present level of educational
performance statements, Dr. Wise turned the leadership over to Mrs. Karing.
Mrs. Karing reported that Sam had improved a full half grade level in
reading and was now reading at the beginning of mid-second grade level. The
remainder of the present levels contained equally impressive progress in the
areas of math, written expression, handwriting, oral language and
study/organization skills. Mrs. Lee was delighted with Sam's progress.
After going over the goals, short-term objectives, specially designed
instruction, related services and extended school year sections, Dr. Wise
resumed leadership and began the section on state- and district-wide
Since Sam was now in fourth grade, the team had to make decisions related to
the mandatory state testing in fifth grade. Because Pennsylvania mandates
testing of all fifth-, eighth-, and eleventh-grade students and, since Sam
would be a fifth grader next year, Sam is required to participate in the
"This section relates to tests that are given by the state and the
district," intoned Dr. Wise. "Since Sam will be a fifth grader next year,
she will be required to participate in the state reading and math testing.
The test is called the PSSA (Pennsylvania System of State Assessment). As
you can see on this page of the IEP, we have to make one of three choices.
The first is to have Sam take the PSSA without accommodations. The second
choice is for her to take the same PSSA with accommodations: the kind that
are described in the specially designed instruction section of her IEP. The
third option is for Sam to take the alternate assessment called the PASA
(the Pennsylvania Alternative System of Assessment). This PASA is intended
for students who have skills that are basically kindergarten or lower.
Since Sam is functioning at the second grade level, we recommend that she
take the PSSA with accommodations. How does this sound, Mrs. Lee?"
"I do have a concern," she offered. "I have a neighbor, Mrs. Prince, whose
son, Darren, is in fifth grade. He also has an IEP. We were chatting about
how Sam and Darren were doing. She talked about the state testing situation
and said that she was very displeased. She said that Darren¹s IEP team had
made the decision to have Darren take the PSSA.
"He took the PSSA with accommodations-the same as you are offering for Sam.
She told how humiliated her son felt by the process. He told her that the
test made him feel Ostupid¹ because he didn¹t know anything on the test.
This upset her. She said that she asked for an explanation from you, Mr.
Wright, and that you referred her to Dr. Wise."
Mrs. Lee went on, "She said that the reason that you gave for Darren¹s
experience was that, since Darren was reading at much less than fifth grade
level and since the test questions are geared to someone with fifth grade
ability, that the district expected that Darren would not be able to answer
any of the questions. Is this true?"
Dr. Wise began, "Since any conversation with Darren¹s mother would be
confidential information, I cannot comment on any conversation that we might
have had. However, I can speak to the issue of the level of the test. The
test is geared for students with fifth grade skills and a student with
skills one or more grade levels below fifth, would find the test difficult."
Mrs. Lee jumped in, "If such is the case, then why should Sam, Darren or any
other kid be put through the stress of such testing, if they haven¹t a
chance of passing it. That doesn¹t make much sense to me. If you already
know that a student is reading at the second grade level, then why use a
fifth grade test? Why not put a second grade test in front of her?"
"I understand your concerns, Mrs. Lee. Many other parents have voiced the
same concerns. I wish that the situation was different, but the state has
provided IEP teams with only three options-the PSSA with no accommodations;
the PSSA with accommodations or the PASA, the alternative assessment. We
are required to choose one of them. Sorry."
"Wouldn¹t it be better for Sam to take the alternative test?" picked up Mrs.
Lee. "Even though it only goes up to kindergarten level, at least she would
be able to answer the questions and come away feeling smarter rather than
taking the PSSA test and coming away feeling stupid. I am especially
concerned about her feeling defeated since she has done so well this year
and hopefully will be doing well next year also. Such a failure experience
could be a major blow to her self-confidence."
"Well, your reasoning works well except for one thing: the state does not
want more than a small percentage of students to take the alternative
assessment and it has set out very specific guidelines for taking the
alternative test. Sam does not appear to qualify under those guidelines,"
offered Dr. Wise.
"Is there nothing that we can do to avoid such a predictable failure
experience?" asked Mrs. Lee, almost pleadingly.
Dr. Wise tried to answer Mrs. Lee¹s question. "Let me say that we are as
upset and frustrated as you over this situation. It seems that we are all
stuck. What we have done in our district to help eliminate the potential
failure experience by our 'gap kids' - this is the name that is being used
for those kids who are too advanced to take the alternative assessment and
not far enough advanced to take the PSSA-is to set them up to take the test
in a separate room. We direct them to fill in their names and other
identifying information and then to answer as many questions as they can.
When they are finished, they go back to their resource room where they can
continue to receive instruction in reading or math or do individual work
from their folders. In this way we try to minimize any prolonged exposure
to failure and continue the instruction that they need."
"That sounds better than the picture of prolonged stress that I had conjured
up in my mind. But is there no way that Sam can be exempted from taking
"There is one alternative," responded Dr. Wise. "A parent can object to the
testing for religious reasons. It requires that the parents look at the
test, determine that the test violates their religious beliefs and then sign
a statement to that effect."
"Do we have to be of a particular faith?" asked Mrs. Lee.
"No," said Dr. Wise. "Not only is basically any religious belief acceptable,
but the parent does not even have to specify what particular religious tenet
is being violated. The parent has only to sign that there is a conflict.
"So, either I 'use' my religion or Sam has to take the PSSA. Is that
correct?" asked Mrs. Lee with a tone of sarcasm.
"I¹m afraid you¹ve summed it up perfectly," said Dr. Wise.
"What a terrible position to place parents and children in. How could this
have happened?" she muttered to herself, not expecting an answer. "I guess
I will choose to have her take the PSSA test with the accommodations. I
thought that the IEP process was supposed to help to tailor testing and
instruction to meet students' individual needs. This seems to violate those
principles. This has to be fixed."
"Yes, Mrs. Lee, this must be fixed, for Sam and for all of our 'gap kids',"
added Dr. Wise.
Is this story or one similar to it familiar to you? What ideas do you have
to fix the dilemma our special education kids are in? Please e-mail them to
Kim Bright at <[email protected]> or Marc
Hissam at <[email protected]> and
they will pass them on to those in positions to tackle this difficult
PFCEC Executive Board