Technology to Support
an Alternative Proficiency Assessment
By Tammy Cordwell
In March, eighth graders across the state of New Jersey will be armed with “number 2 pencils” to battle the GEPA. It’s not a medieval creature. It’s the Grade Eight Proficiency Assessment. Administrators, teachers, parents and students have been told about this day for months now. Administrators have frantically checked the boxes of test materials and trained their faculty on the new rules and regulations. Teachers have put great effort into reviewing all of the curriculum content eighth graders have learned throughout their schooling. Parents have attended meetings and reminded their children on the importance of the GEPA. Some students will sleep uneasily the night before, with butterflies in their stomachs.
Alternative Proficiency Assessment
But, what if you are one of the students in New Jersey who is unable to take the GEPA? What if the GEPA is an assessment instrument that does not lend itself kindly to your learning disability? Is there another option? Yes, there is. It is called the Alternate Proficiency Assessment (APA). Students who are unable to take the regular GEPA because of a disability are given an Alternate Proficiency Assessment. While it may seem like an easy alternative for any student having trouble performing well on the GEPA, it is important to note that the state has strict regulations governing when a student can be offered and ultimately pass the APA.
It is not enough for a student to be predicted to perform poorly on the GEPA or to struggle while taking it. The APA is used only for those students whose Individual Education Plan (IEP) states that they must take a statewide assessment but cannot take the standardized test offered by the state. This decision is made by the IEP team, which must follow the comprehensive guidelines set by the state. When students take the APA, they must perform and accomplish work based on their grade level, so students in an eighth grade special education class must show they are reaching the same New Jersey Core Curriculum Content Standards as all other eighth grade students.
The Alternate Proficiency Assessment is in the form of a portfolio. It must demonstrate that the student has met two literacy goals, two math goals, and three science goals. Along with the New Jersey Core Curriculum Content Standards, students must meet their cumulative progress indicators. The cumulative progress indicators are unique to each student as they are based on the goals listed in their IEP. They are further specified by target skills associated with each indicator. For each cumulative progress indicator, there must be measurable criteria confirming the student has mastered the skill. This record keeping starts at the beginning of the year for most teachers and continues for the allotted timeframe. It involves making copies of work, taking pictures, and printing material that can serve as evidence within the portfolio. In addition, the APA portfolio requires students to self-reflect on their work. At the end of an assignment used as evidence, students must show they have thought about their assignment and comment upon their experience with the material.
For a student and teacher utilizing the Alternate Proficiency Assessment, the work of achieving the goals and organizing the material as evidence can be daunting. Technology has much to offer this process. Teachers can use digital cameras and printers to document work. Software and hardware can be used to help students overcome disabilities and achieve goals once thought impossible.
Spoken Text Helps Student Comprehension
In Montgomery Township, New Jersey, a teacher, Amy Mintz is utilizing technology in her special education classroom to enable her students to meet 6-8th grade curriculum goals. She bases her instructional strategies on current research on brain-based learning, multiple intelligence theories, and differentiated instruction, and technology plays a key role. She has found two products to be particularly helpful when she is working on an Alternate Proficiency Assessment. The following technology applications were successfully utilized in documenting that a student who has low cognitive abilities had achieved all of his goals.
WYNN (www.freedomscientific.com/LSG), a scan/read program, transforms printed text into the spoken word. It uses a bi-modal approach, simultaneously highlighting text on the screen as it reads the text aloud. Teachers can scan handouts or textbooks and save them as electronic files, allowing students to interact with the material by highlighting, masking, listening to the computer read the text, and easily changing the visual display (for example, the size of the font, line spacing, and word spacing). Students also have access to a talking dictionary to look up unfamiliar words. WYNN can access the Internet. Students can open websites and interact with this type of media as well.
The students in Ms. Mintz’s special education class cannot comprehend reading material at their grade level, so they use WYNN to access websites when they are researching current events for the social studies curriculum. For example, one eighth grade student, Brian, who reads far below grade level, was able to complete his project on the structure of the United States government by having WYNN read selected websites to him. Brian had a copy of the printed worksheet at his desk and a copy saved electronically to WYNN. He used WYNN to read the fill-in-the-blank questions. He then minimized the electronic worksheet while he researched the answers on the web. He returned to the WYNN version of the worksheet to type his answers. WYNN allowed Brian to hear what he had written, edit it if necessary, and check his answers. He then wrote his answers on the printed worksheet. By completing the assignment this way, Brian was able to prove he had comprehended the material, and Ms. Mintz added the worksheet to his Alternate Proficiency Assessment portfolio.
In science, Brian completed a guided research packet on sources of energy. Using WYNN to read aloud websites, he researched solar, wind and hydro power and then prepared a PowerPoint presentation on solar power for the class. For a project on scientists, he researched Thomas Edison and made a brochure about him using the text to speech feature of WYNN to edit his work.
WYNN proved to be useful when Brian had to complete a timeline assignment. He had been asked to create a timeline about himself to fulfill a requirement in the New Jersey Core Curriculum Standards and to meet one of his cumulative progress indicators. WYNN helped him create the timeline by reading aloud as he typed the events that had occurred in his life. He used WYNN’s dictionary and thesaurus features to find the proper spelling and usage of words. Brian also used WYNN to share his work with the rest of the class. He stood in the front of the class and pointed to the various dates and pictures he had created on the poster as WYNN read the electronic version aloud for the rest of the class to hear.
WYNN supported Brian during a class reading activity in which students take turns reading a book aloud to the entire class. While other students read the book, Brian listened. He used WYNN to keep a journal of the events, characters and summary of the book as others read. Then, he used WYNN to go back and read the journal when he needed to review the story. In this way he learned the same material as the rest of the class, even though his reading comprehension abilities were significantly below grade level.
Ms. Mintz had Brian create a personal dictionary. At first, the dictionary only contained personal identifiers such as name, address, and phone number. Brian then used picture cards to indicate what words he would like added to his dictionary, such as pizza, hamburgers, family members’ names, and Legos. Words from lessons in the class were also added. Ms. Mintz took a great deal of time to create all of these dictionary pages and make them accessible to Brian. He then used WYNN to listen to the words in the dictionary. He was able to check to see if this was the word he wanted to use when completing class materials or filling out forms.
High-Interest/Low-Level Reading Materials Provide Access to the Curriculum
The second technology product Ms. Mintz has found very useful in her class is the Start-to-Finish Books Series (www.donjohnston.com). Start-to-Finish Books are designed to encourage reading in students whose reading is far below grade level. The series provides a library of abridged books written at lower grade levels but designed for the interests and curricula of higher grade levels. Each book is packaged in three formats: a paperback book to read, an audio book to listen to, and a computer book (CD-ROM) that provides visual and auditory supports. To help with fluency, the computer book highlights the text as it reads it aloud. The narration is digitized speech, not synthesized, so different characters have unique voices, and the reading sounds more like a dramatization than typical computerized voices. This captivates students and involves them in the story. Students can click on unfamiliar words to hear them spoken aloud.
Start-to-Finish Books enable students who are reading on a second or third grade level to read a version of Treasure Island, Huck Finn, or Romeo and Juliet.
If their middle school or high school English class is reading one of these classics, a student whose reading is far below grade level can still enjoy the story and participate in class activities. There are titles available about sports figures such as Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali, and historical figures such as Sacagawea and Rosa Parks. As students’ reading skills improve, the series offers another set of titles at the fourth to fifth grade reading level.
Ms. Mintz commented that she appreciated the variety of subject materials available and the series’ ease of use. Since Brian has a particular interest in science, she chose Liddy and the Volcanoes and Hurricane!. He also chose a Start-to-Finish Book for his personal choice reading which included books that focused on sports. Brian read along on the screen as the computer read the book aloud. Ms. Mintz used the fill-in-the-blank quizzes at the end of each chapter and other assessment tools to check Brian’s comprehension. After his quiz was graded, an option to graph the results was available. Ms. Mintz used this feature to display Brian’s progress to him and to provide evidence in his portfolio displaying how he was meeting his cumulative progress indicator.
Innovative Teaching and Technology Combine to Provide Success for Students
By successfully utilizing technology and innovative teaching methods, Ms. Mintz created an environment in which Brian succeeded. She spent a great deal of time learning how to best use the software to enhance his progress, and she put great effort in compiling the evidence and documenting his growth in his APA portfolio. Because of her efforts, Brian’s portfolio became an organized collection of digital pictures, scanned work, and printed documents that illustrated his mastery of the target skills.
Tammy Cordwell is an alumna of The College of New Jersey (M.S. in Educational Technology) and an assistive technology specialist for the Adaptive Technology Center for NJ Colleges.