By Cathy Spaulding
Phoenix Staff Writer
Muskogee High School inclusion biology teacher Brenda Gilmore gets face to face with students to make sure they know their life science.
Many of Gilmore’s students are physically or developmentally disabled and need her added attention.
“I co-teach with all the biology teachers with all the students, but especially those with learning disabilities,” she said. “I teach them simplified biology. I break it down, teach them test-taking skills, and how to break biology down. That’s the way the (state End of Instruction) tests are now. They don’t just want you to repeat an answer, they want you to apply the answer.”
Those students could need even more attention and help this year as they prepare for state tests. Starting this school year, the Oklahoma Department of Education no longer will offer a modified test for students on Individual Education Plans, or IEPs. These students usually are considered special education or learning disabled.
The state is eliminating the Oklahoma Modified Alternate Assessment Program for:
• First-time test-takers for grades three through eight.
• High School End of Instruction tests in math, English, biology and U.S. history. High school students who took modified EOI tests before this school year will be able to retake the OMAAP through 2016, if needed, an Oklahoma Department of Education information sheet says.
The information sheet said most states do not offer modified tests such as OMAAP. Others are phasing it out. The sheet cites regulations and requirements from the National Center on Education Outcomes that all tests be aligned with grade-level content of the student being tested.
Schools could still use the Oklahoma Alternate Assessment Program for students considered most severely disabled.
OMAAP discontinuation has prompted area districts to step up their education of special needs students. At most area districts, nearly 5 percent of test-taking students took the OMAAP.
“The advantage of OMAAP was that the students were tested over the same objectives, but they were written in a different format,” said Debbie Winburn, Muskogee Public Schools’ director of special education.
For example, a multiple-choice question might have four answer options on the regular state test, but three options on the modified test.
“They were tested over the same areas, but presented in an easier way,” she said.
Winburn said she initially was concerned about the program’s elimination.
“I am still very hesitant about it for two reasons,” Winburn said. “One is self-esteem. We have special students who take regular tests and score well on them. But it’s those students who, say, have a 72 IQ. We don’t want to put a cap on what they learn. We don’t want to stop trying to include that student. But realistically, the student with a 72 IQ that is in the eighth grade is not going to score on grade level for reading. There should be some kind of formula where there is a way to grade it by growth.”
High school students face the added prospect of not getting a diploma if they do not pass the EOI tests. Seniors need to pass four of seven EOI exams to be eligible to graduate. They must pass English 2 and Algebra 1 and any two tests in biology, American history, geometry, Algebra 2 or English 3.
Oktaha School counselor Kathy Barrett said elimination of OMAAP could affect high school students more than those in lower grades.
“It would be a lot harder for them,” Barrett said. “They would need more time to take the tests.”
Muskogee High School offers a “class within a class” for special needs students, Winburn said. That is part of what Gilmore does with MHS sophomore biology teachers.
Gilmore said many students taking the OMAAP assessment were graded on a portfolio, not necessarily on a written test.
“On the portfolio, basically students had a task they had to complete,” she said. “This year is going to be different because they’re not just going to have to ‘kind of’ know it, they are going to have to apply it.”
Gilmore, who has taught inclusive biology for three years, said she is adjusting her teaching for what the students face this year.
“This year is going to be different because there is more in-depth knowledge, it’s not just surface,” she said. “It’s going to be deeper. They’re not going to have to know the initial definition of things.”
Part of that difference involves higher science standards for all students, she said. However, Gilmore also must adjust for students who no longer can take the OMAAP.
“What I am trying to do is try to apply it,” she said. “I’m going to teach it in any form that I can apply it.”
If they can’t do it every single day and they can’t apply it to something that is concrete in their life, they’re not going to have a knowledge of it,” she said. “I try to break it down to the simplest form.”
She acknowledged the challenge she and the students face.
“I’m including the students who are way down here,” she said, holding her hand down near her hip. She raised her hand above her head and continued, “and they have to be way up here. If something has a biotic factor, ‘bio,’ that means ‘life.’ So they’re looking at an answer to something that is living. Do they know what living things are? Do they know that trees are living? Do they know that grass is living? They have to apply it more than they have to.”
Like other educators, Gilmore sees good and bad in OMAAP’s discontinuation.
“It’s going to be good if they could just change their way of thinking,” she said. “They’re going to have to think deeper. It’s going to be harder, but they’re going to remember it if they could just see it through.”
However, she said there will be some students who could not take the test “no matter how much extra work you’re going to put in, and how much they go to tutoring.”
Gilmore said those students would not be severe enough for the Oklahoma Alternate Assessment Program.
“I have several students that don’t meet it for the severe test, but still need that adaptive test,” and they’re not going to be given it,” she said.
The Oklahoma Department of Education offers web pages, research and tools to help students who had taken the OMAAP tests. The state’s Special Education Services division also offers training for teachers, the state brochure said.
The state also offers options for high school students who do not score proficient or advanced on EOI tests. They include retaking the tests, alternate tests or end of course projects.
Reach Cathy Spaulding at (918) 684-2928 or firstname.lastname@example.org.