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FastBridge Tools and Special Education

By: Rachel Brown, Ph.D., NCSP

Special education is a unique and important feature of U.S. public education. Although some states implemented special education programs before 1975, it was the passage of PL 94-142, the Education of All Handicapped Children Act, that year that implemented a nationwide system of supports for students with disabilities (U.S. Department of Education, 2017). A less known part of the history of special education in the U.S. is that certain types of formative assessments, including curriculum-based measures (CBM) were developed for the purpose of monitoring the progress of students with individualized education programs (IEP). As with many innovations that were originally designed for a limited purpose (e.g., Velcro, cellular phones) measures like CBM were later used with the entire population of school-age children for applications like universal screening and progress monitoring of tiered supports. The FastBridge system offers a range of assessments that can be used with all students, including those who have an IEP. In this blog, students in special education will be referred to as those with IEPs. This is because not all students with disabilities require or participate in special education.

Screening Considerations

Most students with an IEP should participate in universal benchmark screening. Excluding any student from screening suggests that the student is not expected to access the general education curriculum. Denying such access violates a student’s right to a free, appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE). Both FAPE and LRE are cornerstones of U.S. special education and can only be modified after prior written notice and with the consent of the parent(s). Including students with IEPs in screening provides educators with information about how each student’s skills compare with others in the same grade level. Through their participation in screening, students with IEPs demonstrate how close or far they are from grade level learning goals. Since the goal of special education is to provide students with FAPE in a setting as close to the general education classroom as possible, universal screening scores can be used to assist IEP teams in determining the right types of services to include in student programs.

Unfortunately, the full participation of students with IEPs in screening has not always been standard practice. In earlier decades, it was sometimes assumed that students with IEPs could not perform as well as other students and, therefore, they should be excused from such assessments. The unintended consequence of excluding students from screening was that teachers never had data that could show if a student was actually performing at or above grade-level expectations. When students with IEPs were expected to perform at lower levels, they did so and confirmed teacher expectations. There is a strong body of research about how teacher expectations contribute to student performance (Rosenthal & Jacobson, 2003). Cook and Schirmer (2003) found that students participating in special education do not necessarily benefit from such programs and that, in some cases, the reduced expectations that can accompany an IEP result in students losing, rather than gaining, skills from their IEPs.

Finally, in regard to whether any students with IEPs should be excused from screening, there are a very small number of students with severe and profound disabilities who will not be functionally able to complete the screening assessments. It is likely that the number of such students in any school will be below 2% of the total enrollment and often less than that. Put another way, keep in mind that the vast majority of students with IEPs spend most of their school days in the general education environment and are fully able to complete screening assessments at grade level. It is also important to note that screening assessments are ALWAYS grade level measures because their purpose is to learn each student’s current performance in grade level content. For students whose screening scores indicate below grade-level skills, providing intervention and progress monitoring is the next step. This is true whether the students does or does not have an IEP.

Progress Monitoring Considerations

As noted at the beginning, CBM and other formative assessments were designed for the purpose of monitoring IEP goals. Despite this legacy, not all students with IEPs complete regular progress assessments. Some type of IEP progress assessment should be done at least quarterly and the results included in the IEP documentation. All students with academic learning goals in their IEPs can be monitored with a CBM. Since students with IEPs have a disability that affects school performance, and the purpose of the IEP is to improve student outcomes, more frequent monitoring is recommended. FastBridge suggests that students with academic IEP goals complete weekly progress measures to document their skill improvements.

The specific FastBridge assessments that can be used for academic IEP goals include the following:

  • earlyReading
  • earlyMath
  • CBMreading
  • CBMmath:
    • Automaticity
    • Concepts and Applications
    • Process

Sometimes IEP goals will need to be monitored using measures below the student’s current grade level. Off grade monitoring is necessary when the grade level measure is too difficult for the student’s current skills. A general rule is to consider below grade level monitoring if the student’s current skills are two or more years below grade level. For example, a sixth grader with second grade reading skills would need to be monitored using either second or third grade level material. In general, the content and level for monitoring should match the instruction, however, it is also important to help the student catch up over time. For this reason, try to monitor students in the highest level that is sensitive to his or her weekly progress. Usually this will be at the level of, or one level above, the instructional materials. The progress data collected as part of IEP goal monitoring can be used at the annual IEP meeting, in the triennial evaluation and to plan the next IEP.

Due Process

A final point to keep in mind when discussing possible use of FastBridge assessments for students with IEPs is that any intervention and progress monitoring efforts in place prior to a student being referred or becoming eligible for special education cannot delay a referral for a special education evaluation. For example, many schools have a multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS) that includes providing any and all students with learning gaps supplemental interventions. The process of providing such intervention and progress monitoring cannot be used as a reason to delay a referral for evaluation. In particular, if a parent initiates a request for referral to special education, it must be acted on according to the state and federal special education due process rules, including the required evaluation timelines (U.S. Department of Education, 2011).

Conclusion

Special education is a unique and important feature of U.S. public education policy. The FastBridge suite of assessments provide tools that can be used with all students, including those with IEPs. Except for a very small number of students with severe and profound disabilities, all students should participate in universal benchmark screening so that teachers can learn each student’s current skills in relation to grade level expectations. Those students whose skills are below expectations should be provided with intervention and progress monitoring, either as part of an MTSS or within an IEP. FastBridge CBM tools can help teachers learn the effects of special education programming and whether changes are needed. Importantly, the use of tiered supports and progress monitoring prior to a referral cannot be used to delay a comprehensive evaluation for special education services.

References

Cook, B. G., & Schirmer, B. R. (2003). What is special about special education?: Overview and analysis. The Journal of Special Education, 37, 200-205. doi:10.1177/00224669030370031001

Rosenthal, R. & Jacobson, L. (2003). Pygmalion in the classroom: Teacher expectation and pupils’ intellectual development (new edition). New York: Crown House Publishing.

U.S. Department of Education. Office of Special Education Programs. (2011). OSEP memo 11-07: Response to intervention (RTI) memo. Retrieved from: https://www2.ed.gov/policy/speced/guid/idea/memosdcltrs/osep11-07rtimemo.pdf

U.S. Department of Education. (2017). Twenty-five years of progress in educating children with disabilities through IDEA. Retrieved from: https://www2.ed.gov/policy/speced/leg/idea/history.html

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