MIAMI – Since the first day of class this school year, Bev Campbell has been teaching her students how to say their names.
Some of the children in her class have autism. Others have Down syndrome or other disabilities. "People don't understand where they've come from," she says. "It's slow."
Just one has learned how to say his name. Still, the South Florida teacher sees signs of growth in the nine kindergarten to second-grade students in her class.
Those little steps are what teachers like Campbell consider major leaps for students with the most significant physical and cognitive disabilities — and what are the most challenging to capture on a test. Yet that will be a significant part of the way school districts in Florida and in many other states will evaluate teachers.
Spurred by the U.S. Department of Education's $4.35 billion Race to the Top grant competition, more than a dozen states have passed laws to reform how teachers are evaluated and include student growth as a component. For most students, that growth will be measured on standardized tests. But for special education students that is considerably more complicated.
"I don't know how they would ever do that for my students," said Campbell, who has 28 years of experience teaching special ed.
In its guidance to states applying for the funds, the Department of Education set as a priority increasing the number of effective teachers in special education, language services, and hard-to-staff subjects such as science and math. Effectiveness would be determined, in part, by whether students reached "acceptable rates" of academic growth. Federal officials provided some criteria for what should be included in teacher evaluations, but left states to decide how student growth should be measured.
The result is that in Illinois, Florida, New York and other states, education leaders and teachers unions are trying to create evaluations that take into account factors such as a student's prior performance, socio-economic background and English language skills. Creating those measurements for general education teachers has proven challenging enough, but for special education teachers, it is even more trying, as officials try to find a way to evaluate growth that often can't be measured on a test.
"The great concern right now in many states is they're using the same criteria for the general education teachers that they're going to use for the special education teachers and there's real resistance to that," said George Giuliani, director of the special education program at Hofstra University's Graduate School and executive director of the National Association of Special Education Teachers.
In a survey by the National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality, 63 percent of special education teachers said they believed student achievement gains should be a component of their evaluations, but only 21 percent thought standardized test scores were an appropriate measure.
Seventy-eight percent said their state hadn't determined how to measure the growth of students with the most profound disabilities. Complicating matters is the very limited research available on special education assessments and evaluations. That means states will have to study and modify their systems as they go along.
"It's a very complex process and it's kind of trial and error," said study co-author Lynn Holdheide, a research associate at Vanderbilt University.
In New York and Illinois, recently passed laws require districts to base a significant percentage of each teacher's evaluation on student growth. Both are still working to determine how that will be done for special education students, a category that encompasses a vast range of conditions, not all of which negatively affect academic performance. In Florida, the process has already begun, with a committee examining a broad range of conditions, from dyslexia to traumatic brain injuries, and analyzing the effect on test scores.
"The performance varied quite a bit based on disability," said Kathy Hebda, Florida's deputy education chancellor.
Because of that, the committee decided students with similar disabilities who can take Florida's statewide math and reading assessment should be compared to one another. The student's prior academic achievement will also be factored in. Teachers will then be evaluated based on how much above or below the average their students performed.
That, however, won't work for students such as those in Campbell's class. For now, most of them are too young to take Florida's statewide assessment, but when they are older, they'd likely take an alternate test. Officials are still deciding how that exam could be used to measure student growth.
"A large number of special education students are able to make learning gains," said Will Gordillo, administrative director for the division of special education at Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the nation's fourth-largest school district.
Those with the most significant cognitive disabilities, however, may not.
"There's concern with this group," he said.
All three states are running up against deadlines: In New York, districts will use a growth component in this year's evaluation, and transition to a "value-added" measure like the one being used in Florida and other states next school year. Chicago will also begin implementing a new teacher evaluation system in the fall.
Some have already expressed concern that the process is moving too quickly, and that it could have negative repercussions for disabled students.
Kevin Kumashiro, a professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago, was one of 88 professors who recently signed a letter raising questions about Chicago's plans. In an interview, Kumashiro said there has been a trend when high stakes are placed on standardized test scores: students who require special services are either turned away or not tested.
"And neither situation is really good," Kumashiro said.
In Florida, the stakes have already been set: 50 percent of teacher evaluations this school year will be based on student growth. For Campbell, that will consist of the school-wide average of students who do take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test — students she has no involvement in teaching.
"We're trying to implement something that wasn't well thought out and now the clock is ticking," said Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for Florida's statewide teachers union. "It's a real problem."
On a recent morning, Campbell took her students at Amelia Earhart Elementary School in Hialeah, Fla., through their exercises. She put on a song and spent time with each student, saying their name, and encouraging them to look into a mirror and repeat it. Next she read from a giant book, about a third her size, about farm animals causing a ruckus in a house.
She went around the room with a small board that had images of a cow, horse and duck. She asked them to point to the cow. Some of the students chose the right image, but others didn't. Some looked off in another direction, delighted by the attention, but unable to respond to the question.
For others she helped guide their hand to the right answer.
"It's taken them a long time, and they're just starting to get these three," she said.
Campbell marvels at what others might see as tiny, insignificant improvements. She likes teaching students others might give up on, sometimes even their parents. One autistic student in her class came in unable to say his name and hardly spoke any words. Now he's reciting many letters of the alphabet and words such as window and couch. Another child, confined to a wheelchair, used to scream and cry all day. Now she stays calm and follows the activities. A child with Down syndrome has begun correctly identifying pictures.
"These are little things," she said, "but it's a lot."