The Black River Falls School District was recently notified by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) that, based on state testing, their special education students were lagging behind the average Wisconsin test scores for special education students.
DPI used state testing results from the Wisconsin Forward Exam taken by third through eighth grade students and sophomores and the ACT test taken by juniors to find this gap based on a 3-year rolling average (school years 2013-2014, 2014-2015 and 2015-2016).
DPI found this issue by comparing the test score gap between the special education students and regular education students in Black River Falls to the state average test score gap between special education students and regular education students in Wisconsin.
“They are not comparing students with disabilities to students without disabilities—they are comparing our special education students to the rest of the special education students in the rest of the state,” district Superintendent Shelly Severson said.
The district has been working to correct this issue ever since they got a warning last year from DPI.
“The state is changing how they measure special education students. Their literacy is becoming a far heavier weight than it used to be. The previous year we were told that while the new requirements were not firmly in place, they let us know that if all data continued in the way it was going that we were not on track to be making adequate progress. So we kind of had a year warning, and then this year that warning came to fruition,” Severson said.
Dr. Tammy Kielbasa was hired in July as the new director of pupil services and has been working to bring together what has been previously done and make it stronger.
“What they spent time doing last year and this year is that they are really working with the curriculum to make sure that we have a rigorous curriculum not only for our regular education students, but that our curriculum for special education students is just as rigorous as the other students,” Kielbasa said adding that they are also working on providing more professional development and additional resources to make sure the teachers have options to teach all of the students.
Having various resources available is important because of the diverse population of students identified as students with a disability, which makes up 11-12 percent of the Black River Falls total student enrollment.
“I would contend that you could walk into any one of our classrooms and you would have little to no idea which students are part of that 11-12 percent of that population because they are as diverse as our non-special education population,” Severson said.
Some students that need special education have learning disabilities, are intellectually disabled, have an emotional behavior disorder, are mobility impaired or have other health impairments.
To help teachers find new and better ideas, the district installed more time for teachers to learn from each other.
“Every Friday is an early release Friday where all of our teachers are working together in Professional Learning Communities. They are specifically working on how to raise the rigor within the grade level curriculum for all students,” Kielbasa said adding that she is rotating between the special education Professional Learning Communities at the four schools to help facilitate further action.
Kielbasa said they are also working on goal writing and performing a cause analysis to find out specifically what the students are struggling with and zeroing in on the problems and addressing these.
“That’s the focus of the DPI and their college- and career-ready IEPs is to find out what the root cause of the student’s struggling is and really zero in on those areas of concern, meet those areas of concern and service those areas,” Kielbasa said.
DPI also told the district that there is another statistic that is concerning to them: the percentage of special education students that are not currently taking the required tests.
The district can opt to have a special education student take an alternative assessment called the Dynamic Learning Map, which is for those higher-need special education students.
“They (DPI) told us that we had too high of percentage of special education students take the Dynamic Learning Map, the alternative assessment, than did the Forward,” Severson said adding that the district is currently looking at their decision-making process.
For regular education students, most tests are completed in 12-15 hours, but Severson said the test can take 30-40 hours for a special education student.
“There are times when a student’s abilities are so far apart from their grade level peers that we decide there is really no value in testing them. We are not going to put an eighth grader through 30-40 hours of testing because it just doesn’t feel like we are going to learn anything that’s going to be valuable information about that student,” Severson said.
Sometimes the district is also put in a hard place when parents request the alternative exam.
“Sometimes parents feel very strongly about this when we are at IEP meetings. They will say we know that he is reading significantly below grade level – why are we going to make him sit there for 30 hours and go through this test when I don’t think that will help them learn anymore?” Severson said. “It is a little point of frustration because we try to do what we think is best for the individual student, but then the state measures our participation rates carefully and tells us we are using the alternative assessment too often.”
Severson expects the changes being implemented now will take three years to be fully realized in the data.