Changes in legalisation have affected the work of teachers by creating three new expectations.
These expectations are:
1. To provide alternative methods of assessment for students with disabilities.
2. To arrange a learning environment that is as normal or as ‘least restrictive’ as possible.
3. To participate in creating individual educational plans for students with disabilities.
Expectation 1: Provide Alternative Assessments
In the context of students with disabilities, assessment refers to gathering information about a student in order to identify the strengths of the student and to decide what special educational support, if any, the student needs.
In principle, of course, these are tasks that teachers have for all students. Assessment is a major reason why teachers give tests and assignments, for example, and why they listen carefully to the quality of students’ comments during class discussions.
For students with disabilities, however, such traditional or conventional strategies of assessment as tests and assignments, often seriously underestimate the students’ competence (Koretz & Barton, 2003/2004; Pullin, 2005).
Depending on the disability, a student may have trouble with:
• Holding a pencil
• Hearing a question clearly
• Focusing on a picture
• Marking an answer in time even when he or she knows the answer
• Concentrating on a task in the presence of other people
• Answering a question at the pace needed by the rest of the class
Traditionally, teachers have assumed that all students either have these skills or can learn them with just modest amounts of coaching, encouragement and will power. For many other students, for example, it may be enough to say something like: “Remember to listen to the question carefully!” For students with disabilities, however, a comment like this may not work and may even be insensitive. A student with visual impairment does not need to be reminded to “look closely at what I am writing on the board”. Doing so will not cause the student to see the chalkboard more clearly, though the reminder might increase the student’s anxiety and self-consciousness.
There are a number of strategies for modifying assessments in ways that attempt to be fair and that at the same time recognise how busy teachers usually are.
These strategies include:
1. Supplementing conventional assignments or tests with portfolios. A portfolio is a collection of a student’s work that demonstrates a student’s development over time. It usually includes some sort of reflective or evaluative comments from the student, the teacher, or both (Carothers & Taylor, 2003; Wesson & King, 1996).
2. Devising a system for observing the student regularly and informally recording notes about the observations for later consideration and assessment.
3. Recruiting help from teacher assistants who are sometimes present to help a student with a disability; an assistant can often conduct a brief test or activity with the student and later report on and discuss the results with the classroom teacher.
Expectation 2: Arrange a Least Restrictive Environment
A ‘least restrictive environment’ is defined as the combination of settings that involve the student with regular classrooms and school programs as much as possible. The precise combination is determined by the circumstances of a particular school and of the student.
A young child with a mild cognitive disability may spend the majority of time in a regular classroom, working alongside and playing with non-disabled classmates and relying on a teacher assistant for help where needed.
An individual with a similar disability in high school, however, might be assigned primarily to classes specially intended for slow learners, but nonetheless participate in some school-wide activities alongside non-disabled students.
The correct ‘least restrictive environment’ for each individual student will vary depending on the following types of factors:
• The severity of the disability
• The level of resources in a given school, e.g. number of teaching assistants
• The teacher’s perception of how difficult it is to modify the curriculum
Expectation 3: Create an Individual Education Plan
An individual education plan (IEP) should be created by a team of individuals who know the student’s strengths and needs.
The team should include:
• The classroom teacher
• The resource or special education teacher
• The student’s parents or guardians
• A school administrator e.g. a vice-principal
• Other external professionals depending on the disability, e.g. a psychologist, physician or speech therapist
An IEP can vary from student to student, but it usually includes the following core elements:
• The student’s current social and academic strengths
• The student’s current social or academic needs
• The educational goals or objectives for the student for the coming year
• Details about special services to be provided to the student
• Details about how progress will be assessed at the end of the year