How do you promote progress for students with significant cognitive disabilities?

Find out in this Q&A with the authors of Alternate Assessment for Students with Significant Cognitive Disabilities: An Educator's Guide

About the authors

Dr. Harold L. Kleinert

Harold L. Kleinert, Ed.D., is currently the executive director of the Human Development Institute – University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities Education, Research, and Service at the University of Kentucky. He has directed a broad range of federally funded demonstration and research projects, especially in the area of education of children and youth with severe disabilities.

Dr. Kleinert has also led projects designed to teach physicians, as well as medical, dental, nursing, and physician assistant students, how to provide high quality care to patients with developmental disabilities.

Dr. Jacqui Farmer Kearns

Jacqui Farmer Kearns, Ed.D., is nationally recognized for her work on alternate assessments on alternate achievement standards. Together with Dr. Kleinert, she developed the nation's first alternate assessment for students with significant cognitive disabilities. She serves as principal investigator for the federally funded National Alternate Assessment Center and is acting director for ILSSA, a University of Kentucky-based assessment design group.

Dr. Kearns has nine years of classroom experience in teaching students with significant cognitive disabilities, and has provided extensive training on inclusive education.


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Q: In her testimony to Congress regarding ESEA Reauthorization, Dr. Kearns referred to alternate assessment based on alternate achievement standards (AA-AAS) as the "1% test." What is the 1% test?

A: The 1% test refers to assessment of students with significant cognitive disabilities; often these students are labeled as having intellectual disabilities, multiple disabilities, or autism. The majority of the population are oral speech users, read sight words, and use a calculator for math. A smaller portion are emerging in their development of language and are more likely to have sensory impairments and complex health care needs. Essentially, the population represents approximately 1% of the total school population.

Q: In your new book Alternate Assessment for Students with Significant Cognitive Disabilities, you explain that federal legislation requires that all students, including students with disabilities, be assessed on performance standards that are "linked to" grade-level curriculum. What does that mean?

A: "Linked" means that students are working on academic content that is as close to the grade-level academic curriculum as possible. This recognizes that some students with disabilities may have skills that aren't commensurate with grade-level academic achievement and that their performance expectations, while still linked to grade-level content, may be reduced in complexity or scope.

Q: How does this differ from what teachers and principals are accustomed to?

A: For this population of students, assignment to grades and grade-appropriate academic curriculum are relatively new ideas. In the past, the focus was on "functional" life skills despite the fact that many students continued to exit school without essential communication skills. It was also despite the fact that the research literature suggests that academic skills can be achieved by these students, and that it is possible to blend academic and life-skill instruction.

Q: Your research suggests that development of communicative competence is at the heart of both access to the general curriculum and the life skills necessary for achieving independence. What are the implications of this finding?

A: Communicative competence must be given top priority. If students don't develop communicative competence they are at risk for poor post-school outcomes, as well as for abuse and neglect. Communicative competence is also critical to the development of reading, a vital skill for accessing academic content in addition to information to assist them in making life choices.

Q: Can you provide an example of the difference communicative competence can make?

A: In the chapter of our book on reading instruction, the chapter authors share the story of a local teacher who had a student in class who was nonverbal and assumed to have both physical and intellectual disabilities. Here is what they said:

"The only way the student could respond in class was through the use of a switch. Teachers traditionally would use two switches to allow the student to make choices: Do you want fries or tater tots for lunch? One day, the teacher realized that she didn't really know if the student was making random or truly deliberate choices, since there was no expected right or wrong response.

The other students in the class were listening to stories and giving responses related to simple comprehension questions. The teacher decided to allow this student to make a similar response. After reading a story to the class, the teacher asked the student a literal comprehension question, and asked her to press one switch to show the first answer and another to pick the second answer. She was somewhat surprised when the student chose the correct answer, so she continued to ask similar questions, and even got into higher levels of comprehension. The student gave the correct response every time.

The student was in fourth grade when this happened, and until then, no one had known for sure that she had understood anything at that level in her life!"

Q: Many teachers, who agree that instruction should result in progress for all students, wonder where they will find the time to differentiate lessons, provide direct, systematic guidance, conduct assessments, and complete the required paperwork for accountability systems. What solutions are necessary to keep educators' jobs manageable and enable them to have a chance at success?

A: Collaboration is key. The single best strategy that a teacher serving this population can do is work with general education teachers who really understand academic content. Deep understanding of the curriculum actually facilitates the extent to which lessons must be differentiated and alternatives provided. Also, the extent to which assessment (both formative and summative) is placed in the context of daily instruction will make a big difference in managing both!

Q: You have played a key role in the field of alternate assessments. What additional strides would you like to see made in the next 10 years or so?

A: Greater access to the academic curriculum so that students leave school prepared to pursue additional educational and career opportunities, friendships and supportive relationships to bridge the future, and community supports that promote life-long learning and pursuit of new opportunities.


Alternate Assessment for Students with Significant Cognitive Disabilities: An Educator’s Guide


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