Let the state testing begin!

This post is primarily for Texas teachers who administer the STAAR-Alt. 2 exam in the spring.  If you're one of these lucky teachers, then you are either at the beginning stages of thinking about the test, or at the ending stages of trying to block it out of your mind.  STAAR can feel like a ticking clock that gets louder and louder, but every classroom is different, so it doesn't have to be that way for all of you.

Special education teachers administering the alternate assessment used to have to make all of their own tests, and that was very overwhelming.  My first year administering the test, I was the only teacher in the A.L.E. classroom with 14 students to test.  This meant, based off their grade levels and the number of tests they needed to take, I had to write over 40 individualized tests (multiply that by many, many essence statements), as well as create materials for the tests.  It took me months of working nights and weekends to have the tests ready by the testing window.

Although we don't any longer have to write our own tests, we still have to accommodate them for each student.  That's fine, as long as you don't have a large class, in which case the big concern is actually getting the tests complete within the testing window.  I feel for you.

Hopefully most of you fall into the area where it's stressful but manageable.  If you haven't done your training yet, you'll probably be doing it soon.  Every year I walk out of the test training feeling like a scared puppy.  You've just had someone tell you for hours all of the ways you can lose your job.  This isn't the most fun day of the year, but it's one of those predicable things about being a teacher.

So, for the sake of CONFIDENTIALITY, I will note that nothing in this post is confidential.  Through trainings you are provided a lot of information, but there is also a lot of information available online to help you prepare for STAAR.  One of the big hurdles is finding the time to track the information down.  So, this is just meant to be a helpful post to save you time.

Everyone has their own opinion regarding standardized tests, particularly for students with significant cognitive disabilities.  It's very difficult to assess our students with a standardized test.  Still, I try to stay positive.  The state needs a consistent way to assess all students, and the essence statements that the tests are built off of are TEKS based.  So instead of looking at it like we are teaching to a test by creating activities based off of essence statements, I prefer to see it as we are creating activities based off of essence statements because they are TEKS based, and that's what our students need and deserve.  The test in the spring is designed to measure growth in our students.

So, if we have students who do not pass the STAAR-Alternate 2 assessment, it shouldn't be looked at as a failure.  If you click HERE, you'll find the STAAR Raw Score Conversion Tables for 2014-2015.  If your student didn't pass last year, then they would be a level 1 learner, and with all students, we're looking to see growth.  Within their "not passing" range there are numbers, so don't fret.  If you have a fear that your student may not pass this year, replace that fear with helping your student to increase their score this year.  Shifting focus from "pass/fail" to GROWTH & PROGRESS is essential.

So, it's time to get prepared.  No more procrastination!
The Texas Education Agency offers many resources to prepare teachers for the STAAR-Alt. 2 exam.  They offer so many links, in fact, that it can be overwhelming.  So, just to break it down for the teacher who may not have visited the T.E.A. website, here are some links to empower you:

Click HERE to go to the Texas Education Agency's STAAR-Alternate 2 Resources page.  You can find links to allowable accommodations for STAAR-Alt. 2, participation requirements, and much more, including the links that I'm about to list below.

Click HERE to download Vertical Alignment Documents.  I list this resource first for a reason.   Obviously, the first step in planning what your students will learn is understanding the state's mandates regarding essential skills.  The Vertical Alignment Document goes by subject, and for each subject, it lists the essential knowledge and skills for students K-12 (or end of course).  What makes this document as user friendly as possible (don't laugh, I know it's A LOT), is that under each skill, it lists how those skills increase in rigor throughout grade levels.  It helps you to begin with the end in mind by being aware of what Texas students are learning at each grade level.  It's essential that special needs teachers are aware of what students are learning in general education.  Ideally, you will begin your school year by becoming familiar with these documents, as they can be useful in planning lessons for your students as well as writing I.E.P. goals.

Click HERE to download the Curriculum Framework Documents.  This is a multi-purpose document, so I'll explain some of what you can get out of it.  The documents that you can download here are specifically for students taking the STAAR-Alternate 2 assessment.

Students who take classes in an alternative learning environment (specialized support, life skills, etc.) do so because an ARD committee has determined, through evaluation of multiple data sources, that a particular student has a significant cognitive disability, and that said student must access the TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) through prerequisite skills.  This is my favorite part of the Curriculum Framework Document.  Special education teachers often get frustrated when they look at the TEKS, because they may not be entirely appropriate for their students the way they are written.  That's why our students access the TEKS through prerequisite skills.  Planning based off of these skills will assure that you are on track with teaching your students what they're supposed to be learning.  Yes, it's more than just their I.E.P. goals.

Beyond the prerequisite skills, the Curriculum Framework Document provides STAAR-Alt. 2 specific information such as instructional terms, the STAAR reporting category, the TEKS that align with your prerequisite skills, and the essence of the TEKS listed.  It's great information, but I'll give you a side note.  Each of these are large files, so you don't necessarily need to print them.  If you save them to your computer and read what you need when you need it, it's less overwhelming.  It's also less overwhelming, if you do choose to print, to only print exactly what you need.

Last year I had 6th, 7th and 8th graders in my room, so I went through the Instructional Terms for all three grade levels, for all nine tests, and I created graphic display vocabulary sheets.  You can click below to download all 130 pages for free.  Much of the vocabulary is the same as last year, so you can eliminate or add whatever you need.  I found that the sheets helped me just as much as the students, as I put them up early in the year, and it was a constant reminder for me to be using the vocabulary that the students needed to learn.  It helped me to stay focused.  I hope it helps you too!

If you're ready to begin planning activities for your students, click HERE to download the essence statements.  I try to start writing and teaching activities based off the essence statements as soon as I can access them, and if I don't have access to the newest ones, I use previous statements to assure that I have that time built into my week.

If you have a large class, if each of your students has a large number of I.E.P. goals, or if you are dealing with both, then once again, I feel for you.  I.E.P. goals are extremely important, but it's also important to remember to not write them in excess.  When students have too many goals, it makes it very difficult for them to not only show significant progress with each goal, but it also makes it difficult to work anything but I.E.P. goals into your lesson plans.

Ideally, there should be time in the week to teach activities based off of essence statements, because this is what exposes them to a wider range of grade level skills and what makes their spring assessment a more valuable measure of their growth.  The more forms of data we can document in a PLAAFP, the better picture we create of where a student is functioning and how the committee can best plan for their future.

I created a 12 week pacing calendar for myself to cover the essence statements that I will be testing in the spring.  Like I said above, none of this is confidential.  I pulled the essence statements for this year directly from the T.E.A. website, and the activities under each are just samples that I created based off of the format provided on the T.E.A. website's Sample Questions for STAAR-Alt. 2.  Each of the activities can be differentiated, but I thought it might be helpful to share these examples, as it's pretty easy to find yourself getting brain-block after reading pages of essence statements and trying to come up with activities.  You won't see any 8th grade activities on the sample, as I don't have 8th graders this year, but I'm also providing the template I made that includes 8th grade, in case you wanted to use it to design your own plan.


When people decide to become teachers, I can only guess that most would not put administering standardized tests near the top of their list.  It's a tremendous amount of work, and I wish you all the best of luck in your preparation!!

Where is Mrs. Morrow?

I've been M.I.A. in the blog world for a few months, but only because I have been working on quite a few projects that I hope will greatly benefit special needs teachers and students in Texas.

I'm in the process of reviewing and updating the Monthly Instructional Guides on the Region 3 website.  I'm really excited about this project because I can indulge in one of my nerdy passions:  organizing.  Sometimes it takes time to make time.  With this project, I'm taking the time to make time for teachers.  Once complete, teachers will be able to download monthly guides with accompanying attachments for each month of the school year.  It's intended to be a tool for teachers to pace themselves with their many responsibilities in a school year.  I plan on devoting one of the months later in the year to technology, so if you use any amazing apps or websites with your students, please send them my way to be added to the master list!
Once the instructional guides are complete, I'll begin working on a really exciting project.  I've been contracted to write a Down Syndrome 101 powerpoint for the Statewide LID network.  Upon completion, the powerpoint will be recorded and made available to teachers and parents across the state using a platform like adobe connect.  I'll be creating slides with slide notes that are scripted for teachers to read in preparing the webinar.  The powerpoint will be shared with all LID (low incidence disabilities) specialists in case they want to present it in a face to face format.  My focus in this presentation will be teaching strategies for working with this student population, not only in an alternative learning environment, but in all school learning environments.  For this project, I'll be searching for photographs of strategies and/or activities being implemented successfully in the classroom, so if you have any great ideas that you'd like to volunteer, I welcome you to do so.  I can always be reached through email.
Every school year I welcome teachers and administrators from around the state to visit my room.  Teachers are amazing resources for other teachers.  I learn something new from every teacher I meet, and that's why I love to collaborate.  Life can get busy though, and we live in a big state.  For this reason, I'm trying a new way to connect with teachers and administrators around the state.  Through GoToMeeting, I can meet with teachers and administrators online using a web camera and the ability for groups of people to ask questions without having to leave their laptop.  Before the meeting, I provide access to attachments that attendees can reference during the meeting.  Hot topics right now seem to be behavior management, lesson planning, and integrating STAAR essence statements into instruction, but really, any issue can be discussed.  I'm looking forward to connecting with many more educators using this tool.

So, that's it in a nutshell.  I'm hoping to be posting new activities and resources to my site around late spring, and I really appreciate the amazing response that I've gotten from teachers.  I want to give the biggest THANK YOU to Lottie Tomko from Region 3 who is not only a warm person and a hard working lady, but who has also provided me with many opportunities over the past few years to get my ideas out of my head and bring them to people who she thinks they may help.  You're awesome!