Friday, March 27, 2015

Wired Differently - Autism

As I reflect on the steep rise in students who are diagnosed with Autism or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), I think back to those days when special needs were first being identified and wonder, “Did we have kids with autism and didn’t know it.”  I never heard of it.  In fact I just read that it wasn’t until 1980 that it was introduced as a separate diagnostic category in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

I can remember my first exposure to Autism – Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man (1988) with Tom Cruise as his brother Charlie.  Here’s the dialogue from the movie as Charlie tries to figure out why Raymond is in an institution:

Charlie: He's not crazy, he's not retarded but he's here.

Dr. Bruner: He's an autistic savant. People like him used to be called idiot savants. There's certain deficiencies, certain abilities that impairs him.

Charlie: So he's retarded.

Dr. Bruner: Autistic. There's certain routines, rituals that he follows.

Charlie: Rituals, I like that.

Dr. Bruner: The way he eats, sleeps, walks, talks, uses the bathroom. It's all he has to protect himself. Any break from this routine leaves him terrified.

For more Rain Man dialogue go to:

Richard Rende, writing for Parents Magazine, says that in 1980 the rate if autism was typically quoted as 4 in 10,000.  The most recent reported rate is 1 in 50.  Without a doubt, every school superintendent I know will agree that the numbers have increased dramatically in the last 10 years.  I can’t help but wonder why.  Are there really more or are we just getting better at putting labels on kids?

In Calvert County Public Schools we have 15,600 students and there are 169 students identified in special education with autism as their disability.  83% are male.  It is highly likely that there are some on the spectrum who are undiagnosed and others diagnosed who do not require special education services. 

Ari Ne'eman is a young man with ASD and co-founder of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network.  He was appointed by President Barack Obama to the National Council on Disability in 2009. He lives in Washington and has been a presenter to school districts.  I’ve chatted with him a few times and heard him speak – very powerful.  He points out that it is indeed a spectrum of behaviors.  He likes to say, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”  In other words, no two are alike.

Here’s an interesting thought.  If there are that many in our student population, are there any CCPS employees?  Would we employ them?  If they came forward and told us that they were ASD, would we offer them accommodations in the work place to help them be successful?

World Autism Awareness Day is officially April 2.  Since we are on Spring Break we will acknowledge and celebrate on April 17. 

Friday, March 13, 2015


It seems like we have always had some sort of state test to take.  The tests have had a lot of different names -MSA, HSA, CTBS, ITBS.   Not to mention the high school pre-college ones like PSAT, SAT, AP, ACT or ASVAB for military careers.  It’s good to have some measure of student progress based upon standards that are challenging and achievable.

Next week we start the PARCC – Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career.  There are 12 states plus Washington, D.C. involved in the partnership that developed this test.  The PARCC website says, “These states came together through a shared commitment to develop a new way of testing – far more rigorous than in the past, far more engaging for students and far better suited to measuring student understanding, reasoning and ability to apply concepts.

By working together, the PARCC states can collectively design a more high-quality assessment that builds a pathway to college and career readiness by the end of high school, mark students’ progress toward this goal from third grade up, and provide teachers with timely information to inform instruction and provide student support.”

There are 20 other states in a similar partnership.  Their test is called Smarter Balanced.

Schedules for getting students tested will be a big part of the school environment for the next month or so.  Grades 3-11 will take part – some more than others.  Your average 4th grader will spend up to 150 minutes testing in Math and 225 minutes testing in English Language Arts/Literacy in what is called the Performance Based Assessment.  Then there will be another 150 minutes for the EOY (End of Year).  Most tests will be taken via computer.  A few at middle and high school will be paper/pencil.

It’s all new and practice tests show that it is very challenging.  No doubt there is some anxiety for staff and students.  How will we do?  We shall see.

Any time there is a new test, there is an expectation that our students won’t be as successful as in the past.  We also have an expectation that Calvert will do better than most.  But, we must be patient with ourselves and recognize that this first administration of the PARCC will be a learning experience for all.  Our teachers have been working hard for a few years to design instruction and assessments that represent these new challenging standards.   It will generate some base-line data that, given Calvert County Public Schools’ history, we will learn from and build upon to show improvement the next time.

There is no book on how to do well on the PARCC.  It is just that new.  Maybe we’ll write it.

We shall see.

To learn more and even take a practice test go to: