in her own words


It all started when Brooke’s team leader was kind enough to walk us through the portfolio that she and Brooke have been working hard on putting together to present to the Massachusetts Department of Education for the MCAS-ALT. MCAS stands for Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, but it’s much better known to many special needs families throughout the state as Those %$@#ing Standardized Tests.

Since there was not really a snow ball’s chance in Hell of my girl sitting through a two-hour test no less, ya know, taking it, Brooke’s team recommended her for the MCAS-ALT, described by the Mass DOE as follows.

MCAS is designed to measure a student’s knowledge of key concepts and skills outlined in the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks. A small number of students with the most significant disabilities who are unable to take the standard MCAS tests even with accommodations participate in the MCAS Alternate Assessment (MCAS-Alt). MCAS-Alt consists of a portfolio of specific materials collected annually by the teacher and student. Evidence for the portfolio may include work samples, instructional data, videotapes, and other supporting information.

And yes, A small number of students with the most significant disabilities stings, but I’m very glad that the option exists for kiddos like mine.

So, back to the portfolio.

After our parent teacher conference last week, Brooke’s team leader brought us in to show us the binder that they’ve been readying to hand into the DOE. And right there, on the second page was the absolutely, positively best piece of writing I’ve ever seen.


I give you my girl, in her own words.


As always, I hope you’ll excuse my clumsy photo shopping skills. I know how to take Brooke’s real name out, but not how to put ‘Brooke’ in and my IT guy is sleeping.


Hi my name is Brooke. I am 8 years old. I’m in grade 3 and my favorite thing to do is to do pixwriter. I like to publish stories. I like to play with the camping toys. I like to swing high in the hammock. I find the monkey bars on the playground hard. I don’t like the fire alarm because it hurts my ears and I cover them. My favorite thing to do at home is put on plays called sleeping beauty where I am sleeping beauty when my family watches it when it is a video of it when my mom says and now presenting Brooke’s play with singing and dancing. I also like to play Nick Jr. on the computer. I like to watch TV. I like to watch Sesame Street.


As we read Brooke’s autobiography, I thought of a letter that a friend had shared with me a couple of years ago. It was written to students by a woman named Mary Ginley, who was, for reasons that will soon be obvious, the Massachusetts Teacher of the Year in 1998.

This is what it said:

I would like to address a letter to all the students who received their MCAS scores this week.

Dear students: For all of you who took the MCAS tests last May, please remember that strangers gave you these scores. And that there are many ways of being smart.

These strangers do not know that you can speak two languages. They do not know that you can play the violin or dance or paint a picture. They do not know that you take care of your little brother after school, that your friends can count on you to be there for them, that your laughter can brighten the dreariest day.

They do not know that you write poetry, wonder about black holes, know exactly how much change you should get when you go to the market.

They do not know that you are trustworthy, that you are kind, that you are thoughtful. They do not know that you spent your summer with a 700-page Harry Potter book.

They do not know you. But we who know you – your moms and dads, your grandparents and teachers, your neighbors and friends – are proud of all you are and all you will be. MCAS scores will tell you something, but they will not tell you everything. There are many ways of being smart.

And I thought, As hard as it may be for my girl to put that portfolio together, she is blessed to have the opportunity to do it. Why? Because she is one of only a handful of kids who get to not only show the DOE what they know, but also (at least a little bit of) who they are.

I hope whomever it is at the DOE who gets to read it knows just how lucky they are too.

31 thoughts on “in her own words

  1. My son Sam took the same alternate test here in Maryland this year and I had the opportunity to look at his folder too. I wish they had included a page like this for him but they didn’t. I would have liked to hear what he had to say about his likes and dislikes.

  2. Awesome! I love it Brooke’s autobiography and how she lists her favorite things and some of her challenges.

    And the letter from Mary Ginley is an inspiration. I would like to think that her words represent what we all feel, but do not quite always know how to say. Thank you for sharing, Jess!

  3. A sleeping IT guy? Seriously, for the high wages he earns for that kind of thing, he should have an on call plan (grin). I loved this for so many reasons. Brooke’s writing, for one. But that teacher’s statement about the *?#* standardized tests was right on also.

  4. It has been high anxiety here over the MCAS with my typically developing children. My 6th grader is a seasoned pro, but last year’s MCAS did not capture my girl, who spoke no English until she came to live with us at age 7. My girl who devours books…in English. Who is braver than brave, who left her “real” mother behind in Mexico when we moved from San Diego to Massachusetts. My girl who truly believes that her little brother “is the cutest baby in the entire world.” My girl who believes more than viscerally that her brother will change the world. My girl who does things like this…. . No, those results captured none of her history, none of her, instead stating Language Arts-Yay! Math-Ew. Um, yeah, no. And this year my older son, the little guy that wears anxiety like most people wear shirts, will be subjected to this high-stakes standardized testing system. The tension has been building, the tinder-box preparing itself. He has been coming come for the past 2 weeks crying nearly He doesn’t know why. But I do. My entire career was marred by these high stakes tests. I am not a new-comer to the anxiety, as your entire worth as an educator is entirely determined by these test scores. The pressure is intense, haunting. And I know that they will not capture him either. The him that has spouted scientific knowledge since as long as I can possibly remember. The him that giggles and smiles and lights up a room when that anxiety sweater has been shed. The him that on any given day is dressed as and in the character of a native American, a ninja, a beloved character, a warrior, a botanist, a biologist, that animal guy on tv. Yeah, him. Him whose reading comprehension is unparalleled in his grade level. Him who struggles to compose a written sentence because those fine motor skills are so very weak. Him who breaks down in tears because a writing prompt asks him for the “best day he ever had” and he can’t think of just one and is paralyzed by that fact because to him writing to the prompt is lying to the world because he has had many, but he’s only allowed one. Yeah, that guy. The MCAS can’t possibly capture the many facets that is him.

  5. The bulk of my job is based around MCAS – organizing, creating test schedules, providing accommodations, and sending it back properly so that the “MCAS Police” (as I call them), have what they need. This includes the ALT. Brooke’s portfolio page is brilliant! It’s exactly that type of work that proves WHY MCAS-ALT is so important to so many kids. Also, I love the words written by Mary Ginley – I’m going to steal it and show it to my principal. I wish I had it last week when our kids were taking the test. Some struggle so much with it, and it would have been fabulous to show them that letter. We so often try to tell them that their teachers don’t like the test, either, but this letter is a great way to emphasize that point! Thank you for sharing!

  6. This might be my favorite autobiography ever, right up there with _Dreams from my Father_ and a piece posted on my fridge by someone who loves crocodilians and believes in the power of green.

    “Standardized tests.” We can stop right at “standardized.” There is no standard child, and there is no standard intelligence. You keep busting out, Brooke. “I like to swing high in the hammock.” Gorgeous.


  7. I am dreading my state’s version of these tests…my oldest starts them next year. *shudder* I love how that teacher of the year from 1998 so eloquently stated the test scores and what they DO NOT capture.

    I loved Brooke’s essay…and I hope the person who reads it know how lucky they are to get a glimpse of your precious daughter.

  8. LOVE the letter! I won’t tell you the #&$%*#% words I’ve used in IEP meetings to let admin. know that I will not spend more than 5 minutes discussing tests that have absolutely no bearing on my beautiful girl.

  9. what a completely amazing and wonderful thing! very nice to see her writing…i love that she loves to publish stories, she is so like her mama that way.

    this post made my week, it’s a lovely thing.

  10. I’m so glad they shared the portfolio with you. I love reading the things my kids write, especially when they so obviously capture who they truly are. Your girl is a treasure.

  11. Lovely to hear her voice – her story – in her words. I suggest you write a few posts in pixwritier… that would be pretty cool. Because this is cool. Thanks for sharing.

  12. Jess, damnit. Tissue warning before reading the letter from the teacher would have been appreciated.
    My son does not have the challenges of autism but he has significant learning disability challenges.. He, like all our children, are so much more than the sum of their test scores. Your daughter, and whomever gets to see her portfolio, are indeed lucky.
    Thank you, as always, for sharing.

  13. My daughter takes alternate assessments also. Only when she was middle school aged did I realize that this meant that she was not on a path to get a high school diploma (rather she will get an IEP certificate/diploma), for some reason, i was under the impression that your daughter was functioning at a level (inclusion classes?) where she could eventually get a high school diploma. If you are under that impression, you might want to clarify. The school districts are not direct with their discussion when they place children in this “select” group for alternate assessments. I am now a special ed teacher and autism consultant, and I let the parents know that if their IEP states alternate assessment, they are tracked for IEP diploma. Of course things can change, but not likely, because the subjects and classes the other kids take are those that will likely result in being prepared for the standardized tests. Most times the districts peg the kids correctly, but there are some high functioning kids with autism that need to take those tests and get all kind of supports so they have a chance at a diploma. Be frank and expect frankness and directness. Ask your CSE if this means your child will not get a diploma and if it DOESN’T, when do they expect to switch her to that track? How will she be prepared to pass those tests and meet high school diploma requirements?? Catching up (Math, Social Studies, Science, ELA) will be next to impossible if you wait until middle or high school. Maybe you are aware of this and have accepted that there is no high school diploma (or college admission) but too often, parents don’t realize (because they are not told or consulted in this decision) that alternate assessment means IEP diploma. I still am surprised that the districts make this decision so very early and how often it might be wrong for kids with autism.

    • Dear S + Ts mom,

      I’m not even sure where to start here. Firstly, let me clarify a few things.

      My daughter is in THIRD GRADE. I will refer back to this again.

      She is in an inclusive classroom for as much of her day as she can be. In order to access that classroom, she has a full-time one-to-one dedicated, behaviorally trained aide.

      By necessity, she is pulled out of the room throughout the day for one-to-one teaching by Spec Ed teachers and therapists trained in various disciplines, from ELA and Math to OT and Speech and language.

      The team did not make the recommendation for the ALT in a vacuum. Since WE are members of the team, they couldn’t have.

      The group told us they were thinking about it at the beginning of the year. When they first mentioned it, they gave us a ton of information along with links to the DOE website. We promised to look into it and get back to them.

      We then consulted with scores of parents and our own team of professionals, who all agreed that the concept of a standardized test would not only be vastly inappropriate for our kiddo right now – with or without substantial accommodation – but, more importantly would actually be very harmful to her given her severe anxiety.

      And – she is in THIRD GRADE.

      The MCAS happens yearly. Next year we will have an entirely different discussion around the test as, no doubt my child will be completely different a year from now, just as she is every year.

      The ‘track’ she is on is in absolutely, positively no way defined in third grade She is on HER track.

      Each year (and frankly far more often) we sit down AS A TEAM to discuss the curriculum that is currently appropriate to present to her. To imply that appropriately individualizing my daughter’s education IN THIRD GRADE somehow means that I’ve accepted that ‘there’s no high school diploma (or college acceptance)’ ahead is patently absurd. The fact that you are a sped teacher and autism consultant and you even entertain that kind of thinking terrifies me.

      The first doctor we ever saw had the audacity to prognosticate about my child’s future. She looked into her crystal ball and divined that the three year-old sitting on the floor in front of her would ‘live a solitary life’. Even six years later, it is obvious to anyone who knows her that the doctor could not have been more wrong. That prediction was reckless and would have been incredibly dangerous had I been the kind of person who would have believed her.

      Saying that a THIRD grader who opts to take an alternative assessment is on track for ANYTHING that is ‘not likely to change’ is no less absurd nor any less dangerous.

      I sincerely hope you’ll rethink the idea of an imovable ‘track’.



      • First, I don’t think there is in an immovable track. I did state that “of course things can change”.

        Second, I am reassured that in your case, the decision was not made unilaterally and that you will be revisiting it and giving your daughter every chance to get that diploma. I don’t think that most parents are as involved with the decision, or even aware that there is a decision. You are the exception, not the rule.

        Also, you will see with your older child that is in the general ed environment how very difficult (for your younger child) it is to meet even minimal requirements. If a child is not fully immersed in the middle school grade level academic courses, it is extremely difficult to take more advanced (required) courses later. In order to get to the middle school courses, the elementary classes are preparing the kids at a rapid level. Each grade builds on the prior grade work. Some of the work is mastered with homework and projects as the teachers move quickly through the state requirements.

        I wish there was more individualization and modified curriculum, but even in self-contained classes (that are not “life skills” classes), I see that the kids are not being taught the state curriculum at the grade level (even if some of them are capable) and that the group is being taught as a whole to the lowest level. When we have moved children with severe behavior challenges into smaller classrooms, we have had much difficulty with teachers who cannot or will not teach at grade level. This means that if a child has to move to self contained, he/she does not contact the necessary requirements to pass our state tests with the minimum scores for graduation.

        I know of a few parents in the district that I am especially thinking of (and I am in a relatively wealthy area with excellent districts) that are working very hard to get the consultants, aides, modifications that their children need to access a general ed curriculum and regular diploma. But those parents are leading that effort with resistance from teachers and administrators. I am so pleased to be on their teams, but at the same time I see how unfair it is for other kids to not have that kind of parent. I think it’s important that parents realize that if the IEP states alternate assessment, they must be ready to fight hard to get that diploma for their child. I was just trying to raise awareness really. There are children in self-contained classrooms who are not going to get diplomas unless the parents become very active (and also unless the children have the capability with modifications to demonstrate capability).

  14. It is a beautifully, well written essay. I love it!

    Let’s get one thing straight… everyone learns on their own timeline. Just because standards are set does not mean the majority of people can work within standards. Life is not defined by tests or scores or certificates of achievement. It is based on hard work and determination. Our paths are paved by sheer will power.

    Your girl Jess, she is amazing. She will move mountains… she already has.

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