Educators have complained for years that too many special education students are forced to take inappropriate state tests, resulting in frustration and results that don't reflect what they really can do.
Now, the state is introducing a modified test for some special education students that is being offered for the first time in math in all districts and field-tested in reading and science in some districts.
"The goal of the test is for schools to increase the number of students who can show proficiency," said Charlie Wayne, educational assessment specialist for the state Department of Education. "When a student looks at this test, it just feels better to them. They're not as intimidated or not as stressed by taking a modified test."
The test known as PSSA-M -- which stands for Pennsylvania System of School Assessment-Modified -- was given in math from April 7 through Friday in grades four through eight and 11.
The reading field test, also given in those grades, and the science field test, given in grades eight and 11, will be given from May 17 to 21. The PSSA-M in all three subjects will be given in all districts next year.
Some schools throughout the state have missed making the required adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act because too many students in a special education subgroup did not score at the proficient level.
While the new test is at the same grade level as the regular test, its simplified format may be different enough that at least some of the students will be better able to show what they know and score at the proficient level.
"Even if they're not going to score on the proficient level on the modified test, they're still going to have a better experience about testing," Mr. Wayne said.
After giving the test last week, one Quaker Valley teacher told Sally Hoover, director of pupil services, that some students are expected to score at the proficient level. But even if some still have low scores, the teacher reported, "they showed great effort and there were no tears."
That teacher also said, "I cannot tell you how great the PSSA-M was," according to Dr. Hoover.
The test is designed to be given to up to 2 percent of a district's students in the tested grades. To discourage districts from offering it to too many students, districts can count only 2 percent of their students as proficient on the PSSA-M even if more than 2 percent pass it. Additional students would be counted as not proficient even if they scored at the proficient level.
"I think it's definitely a step in the right direction," said Jeff Taylor, director of curriculum and assessment in the North Hills School District.
In Woodland Hills, where the high and junior high schools missed making AYP at least in part due to special education subgroups, curriculum coordinator Norman Catalano said, "One of the things that special education teachers have hoped for was that there would be modifications for all of the kids with [individualized education plans]. Obviously, that's not going to be the case."
The state already had one alternate test, known as the Pennsylvania Alternate System of Assessment for severely retarded or physically limited children. The PASA tasks are designed for each student and done individually with supervision from a teacher. That test is limited to 1 percent of students.
The PSSA-M is closer to the PSSA than to the PASA. Like the PSSA, the PSSA-M is a paper-and-pencil test, and students are required to take it at the age-appropriate grade level, even if they are working at a lower grade level.
The PSSA has 60 multiple-choice questions and three open-ended ones, while the PSSA-M has 30 multiple-choice questions and two open-ended ones.
The PSSA-M also has a simplified format, including more white space, larger type and some hints. Students write answers directly in the test booklet rather than filling in a separate answer sheet.
Administrators do not review the test, and the state does not release most state test questions. But a released math sample question shows how the test is modified.
In the regular PSSA item, the student is told, "Jim earned $127.59 last month." In the PSSA-M, the sentence is shortened to "Jim has $128." While the wording is simpler on the PSSA-M, both ask the student to choose an estimate of 20 percent from four possibilities.
Dr. Hoover said that teachers who gave the PSSA-M in math last week said students liked being able to write the answers in the test booklet. They also said the test better assessed math skills because the wording was easier to understand.
Clairton assistant superintendent Elisabeth Ehrlich said the standard format of "one-inch margin and lots of text and usually divided into two columns" creates "more obstacles than necessary."
Dr. Ehrlich, who beileves there should be additional levels of the state tests, said some struggling students give up on the regular test.
"You can never really tell whether that student who struggles could have performed at grade level if he hadn't lost hope," she said.
In Fox Chapel Area, where the high school and Kerr Elementary missed making AYP last year because of a special education subgroup, data research analyst Alicia Gismondi said, "The simplified format, the kinder numbers, the reduced number of sections should really be helpful for our students who struggle academically."
In Pittsburgh Public Schools, where some schools have missed special education performance targets, spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said about 230 students will take the PSSA-M. District officials hope the test will provide a "real picture" of what students know, she said.
Baldwin-Whitehall superintendent Lawrence Korchnak called the new test "long overdue." Whitehall Elementary School missed making AYP last year because of a special education subgroup. With the new test, he said, "I think it will give you a much more valid result."
Education writer Eleanor Chute: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1955.