Parkview teacher believes state education testing unfair

CNJ Staff Photo: Andy DeLisle
Lisa Gershon teaches special education at Parkview Elementary School. She said teaching special education enables her to become more involved with her students.

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

Lisa Gershon has taught special education at Parkview Elementary School for six years.

A Clovis native, Gershon follows in the footsteps of her mother, who taught fourth and sixth grade, also at Parkview.

The ability level of Gershon’s students ranges from grades K-3.

For instance, a student of Gershon’s could be enrolled in third grade, based on age and general performance. But the student could receive special instruction by Gershon in reading or math with a group of peers who are learning on a comparable level in that subject.

Her classes vary in size, but rarely reach above seven students.

Students receive instruction in her classroom for a variety of reasons, she said.

Many have been diagnosed with autism, developmental delays or learning disabilities, she said.

The No Child Left Behind Act has pushed special education students and teachers into the spotlight. This subgroup of students has consistently fallen short of meeting national Adequate Yearly Progress standards.

AYP is a measure of the No Child Left Behind Act that aims for 100 percent student proficiency in math and reading standards by 2014.

In New Mexico, a student must test below grade level to qualify for academic special education programs. Yet, special education students are tested for AYP based on grade level.

In Clovis, six schools failed to met AYP standards in 2006-2007. Of those six, five failed because of below-par performance among special education students. Of those six, four also failed because of below-par performance among other subgroups, such as English Language Learners and/or economically disadvantaged students.

Each year, Gershon’s third-grade students are tested for AYP. Here is a closer view of her career, her students and her thoughts on AYP.

Q: Why did you want to be a special education teacher?
A: I was caught between early childhood education and special education, and leaned more towards special education. It’s a different atmosphere. There is more individual time and you are able to get more involved with your students.

Q: Identify the qualities of a good teacher.
A: Patience, understanding and a love for kids.

Q: Tell us about a project students are working on in your classroom?
A: We are working on class books.
(Students complete sentences and draw in the pages of the books, assembled of loose leaf paper. Each book is personalized, as students write sentences about things they like to do and eat, for instance).
“We will do about 50 in a year. It’s a good activity. It builds their confidence. It’s something they made that they can read.”

Q: How do you prepare for the New Mexico Standards Based Assessment (these tests determine if a school is making Adequate Yearly Progress)?
A: We used to prepare for the tests a month or two in advance. But they are pushing testing so much, now we start (preparing) from day one.
We try not to put pressure on the kids. … We open them up to different testing strategies.

Q: What are some of those testing strategies?
A: Fill in the blanks, short answer questions, open-ended questions.

Q: Describe these tests?
A: There is so much writing. There are hardly any questions that are like “22 + 25.” You have to draw, explain, depict. It is really involved. So we practice with lots of open-ended questions.

Q: Are these tests timed?
A: No.

Q: How long does it take to complete these tests?
A: It usually takes about a week. Everyone in the school must complete math, reading and science tests.

Q: How do your students act during test days?
A: “They are antsy, fidgety. They are ready for it to be over on the first day. They reach their frustration level.”

Q: How do you feel about testing your students?
A: It is really frustrating giving special needs students these tests because they are not at the level they are being tested at, but they are expected to perform at that level.

Q: What type assistance can you provide to students taking these tests?
A: It is pretty limited. For math, you can read the problems and answers. Students can use some aids, like certain charts, or counting devices, like beans. Calculators are not allowed, as of last year. For reading and writing, there is really nothing (you can do to help).

Q: Do you feel like Adequate Yearly Progress testing standards are fair?
A: For special education students, no I don’t. If a child is learning at the first-grade level, test them at the first-grade level. It isn’t fair to give them a third-grade-level test.
Schoolwide, I think the standards are fair. Each grade level has certain standards and that’s their curriculum throughout the year.

Q: Does anything worry you about the No Child Left Behind Act?
A: I don’t want us to start teaching to tests. I feel like kids may start missing out on life things.

Editor’s note: More coverage of special education students in the district and the No Child Left Behind Act can be found in archives on www.cnjonline.com.