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Assessment is a key component of special education and education reform. Children are assessed individually to determine their eligibility for special education services and to ascertain learning needs. Education reform initiatives usually rely on large- scale standards- based assessments - student progress is measured relative to a set of state, district, or national standards. Thus, what students know and are able to do is compared to standards of knowledge and skills, rather than to the performance of other students.

Assessments used for education reform often are referred to as statewide or district- wide assessments because they are designed to measure the status of the education system for all students. They may also be called large- scale assessments because large groups of students are tested in a relatively short period of time and under uniform conditions so that results can be compared across groups of students. You may recall taking these kinds of tests when you were in school.

In the past, large- scale assessments were not always considered important for students with disabilities - it was assumed that special education assessments provided sufficient data on how well students were doing in school. Typically, however, special education assessments have not provided information on what students know and can do relative to local and state standards.

Today’s tests probably are different from the ones that you took. In addition to typical multiple- choice tests, alternative assessments are being used. Many of these alternative forms of assessment require students to provide written responses, and often the responses are expected to be several paragraphs long. The assessments may also be performance- based assessments - assessments that take a variety of forms including: essays, problem- solving items, science experiments, production of art work, and portfolios of student work and computer simulations.

The 1997 amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) require the participation of students with disabilities in statewide and district-wide assessments, regardless of the format of the assessments. This addition to the law means that the education system must be accountable for the results of education for all students.

What is results-based accountability?

Standards- based assessments often are part of a larger accountability system - a system that holds an individual or group responsible for student learning. Results- based accountability is different from the compliance- based accountability of special education. Both approaches to accountability can be used at the same time. Results- based accountability looks at the important question, “Is the student learning?” Compliance- based accountability asks the question, “Is the student receiving the services written on his or her IEP?”

Accountability is a more encompassing term than assessment. It can include more than the collection of data from tests, record reviews, and other performance assessments. A system is accountable for all students when it makes sure that all students count (or participate) in the evaluation program of the education system. Counting all students does not mean that all students take the same test. Rather, it means that all students’ learning and progress are accounted for and included when reporting on the education system.

Have students with disabilities been included in assessment and accountability systems?

Studies show that students with disabilities have been excluded to an unreasonable extent from large- scale assessment programs and from results- based accountability systems. About 50% of students with disabilities have been excluded from various assessments at the national, state, and local levels. But the exclusion rates vary from 0% to 100%. And, these are only estimates. Most states and districts have a difficult time saying exactly how many students with disabilities participated in their large- scale assessments.

With the passage of the 1997 amendments to IDEA, exclusion of students with disabilities from state and district- wide assessments is no longer acceptable. IDEA now requires that students with disabilities be included in assessment programs. Specifically, students with disabilities are expected to participate in state and district-wide assessments, using accommodations where appropriate, and their scores are to be reported in the same ways that the scores of other students are reported. To ensure that all students with disabilities are included, alternate assessments are to be developed for the small percentage of students unable to participate in regular state and district- wide assessments. There should be no exclusion of students with disabilities from state and district-wide assessment programs.

Why be concerned about the exclusion of students with disabilities from assessments and accountability systems? Out of sight is out of mind - individuals excluded from assessments are not likely to be considered in policy decisions that affect all students. Students with disabilities must be considered and included in the assessment of what students know and can do. To understand whether education is working for students with disabilities, inclusion in assessments and accountability systems is critical. Major changes in policies and practices are needed to ensure that all students with disabilities are included in state and district- wide assessments. Implementing the new IDEA requirements appropriately will require significant effort on the part of parents, educators, students, test-designers, policy makers, and others. In the mid 1990s, the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) identified three points in the assessment process where exclusion of students often occurs. In each of these three phases of the assessment process, substantial changes are required:

  • Development of the assessment,
  • Administration of the assessment, and
  • Reporting results of the assessment.
  1. At the time of development

    Students with disabilities often are not considered when items are developed, and they are not included when assessments are field-tested. As a result, assessments may not have appropriate items for students with disabilities. Frequently, there are insufficient test items to accommodate the diversity and range of skills of students with disabilities.

  2. During administration

    A second point of exclusion occurs during the administration of the assessment. This is the kind of exclusion most people know about. Low expectations, totally separate curricula, and lack of needed accommodations have led schools to exempt students. To protect students with disabilities from having to “suffer” through a test they may fail, parents have been encouraged to keep students home, or students have been pulled out of the classroom to watch a movie, or go on a field trip when the state or district-wide assessment is given.

    There are many reasons for exclusion that occurs at the point of administration. Among the most common are:

    • Written guidelines that are exclusionary or vague
    • Restrictions on accommodations
    • Altruistic, yet misguided, concerns about possible negative effects of tests on students with disabilities
    • Incentives created by the assumption that students with disabilities will perform poorly and the desire to have a school or state look good in comparison to other schools or states
  3. When reporting results

    A third point of exclusion occurs when the reports of results are prepared. Often, the scores of students with disabilities are omitted. Scores are omitted in some cases, due to a concern that the performance of students with disabilities will negatively impact the overall results of the assessment. On the other hand, states and districts sometimes are unable to separate the scores of students with disabilities from those of other students. When this is the case, it is difficult to hold schools accountable for the achievement of students with disabilities.

What are assessment accommodations?

Assessment accommodations are changes in how the assessment is presented, where it is presented, the timing or scheduling of the assessment, and how the student can respond. States and districts use a number of terms to refer to the concept of accommodation. Frequently used terms include: adaptation, modification, and alteration. It is important to find out how these terms are used in a particular location. The use of accommodations during assessments is probably the most controversial aspect of the participation of students with disabilities in large-scale assessments. There are a number of technical and implementation issues related to the use of accommodations and their effect on test scores. These issues require additional research and negotiation to help create a fully inclusive assessment system. However, by law, students with disabilities must now be included in assessments with appropriate accommodations.

An action plan for assessment: What needs to happen?

In less than a decade, there has been a dramatic increase in the amount of attention that our nation pays to assessments given both in and outside of the classroom. Assessment and accountability have moved to the forefront of reform efforts and now IDEA requires that students with disabilities be included fully in these efforts. Building a system that is accountable for all students should be the goal of our education system. If we begin our planning and development of assessments with this end in mind, then we can proactively address the issues of accountability for the learning of all students.

General actions steps

Be in the know. Find out what your state or district is doing in the assessment arena. Does your state have a statewide assessment? Is there a district assessment? Secure copies of participation, accommodation, and reporting guidelines. If your state does not have a statewide or district assessment, find out what is currently being developed to account for student learning. In either case, check to see how students with disabilities are considered in the guidelines or the development of the assessment and policies. Use the following checklist to guide your efforts:

Instrument development

Find out whether individuals knowledgeable about disabilities are involved in the development of test items or new assessments, and whether students with disabilities are included when assessments are field tested. Field testing helps identify problems and the need for more varied items. Test items can be dropped, modified, or added during this phase to allow more students to participate.

Instrument administration

Check to determine whether students with disabilities are participating in the assessment. When sampling procedures are used for a new assessment, the sample must be representative of all students.

Partial participation

Even though a student may not be able to take all parts of an assessment, the student should be included in those parts in which participation is possible.

Alternate assessment

For a small percentage of students with disabilities, it may be necessary to have an alternate assessment. These assessments are for students with severe disabilities who need a totally different test to demonstrate what they know and are able to do. Check to see whether an alternate assessment is available or being developed in addition to the regular assessment. The 1997 amendments to IDEA require states with state and district assessment programs to conduct alternate assessments beginning July 1, 2000, for students who need them.

A monitoring system

It is important for assessment systems to monitor adherence to the assessment guidelines. Find out whether your state and district-wide assessment systems include mechanisms to:

  • Check that students receive the appropriate assessment (regular or alternate).
  • Verify that appropriate accommodations are provided during the assessment.
  • Remove incentives for exclusion from the regular assessment. Some states have achieved this by assigning the lowest possible proficiency level score to all excluded students when determining school, district, and statewide scores.

Reporting of results

The IDEA Amendments of 1997 require students’ scores to be reported separately (“disaggregated”), and the proposed rules stress the importance of combining (“aggregating”) data in reports. In addition, the number of students with disabilities taking regular state or district assessments must be reported, along with the results of those students taking alternate assessments. If a student is excluded from regular testing for any reason, find out what the procedure is for including their alternate test results in testing reports. For example, Kentucky assigns the scores of all students to their neighborhood schools, regardless of the school they actually attend.

Individual IEP action steps

With the IDEA Amendments of 1997, IEPs must now address a student’s participation in state and district-wide assessment. During the IEP process, attention needs to be given to

  • The goals of instruction, which must be linked to the general education curriculum,
  • The kinds of instructional accommodations used in the classroom, and
  • The accommodations needed to enable participation in assessments.

The following issues and questions should be addressed during the IEP development process:

  • Identify the goals of the student’s instruction. With the IDEA Amendments of 1997, the IEP must address the student’s participation in the general curriculum.
  • What kinds of instructional supports, services, and accommodations are indicated on the IEP? Are these accommodations appropriate given the student’s strengths, weaknesses, and educational goals?
  • What kind of accommodations, if any, are necessary for the student to participate in state or district assessments? Are the accommodations used during classroom instruction the same as those provided during tests? If not, why not? Accommodations usually should not be introduced for the first time during an assessment. They should be part of the student’s ongoing instruction.
  • If a student is being considered for an alternate assessment, consider whether further accommodations or adaptations would increase the likelihood of participation in the regular assessment.

Some final words

Increasingly, states are expected to implement systems of education that emphasize higher standards and accountability for all students. State assessments are being revised in response to changes in the law, public challenges, and national initiatives. Assessment results help policymakers make decisions to improve education programs. It is imperative, therefore, that all students, including students with disabilities, participate in these assessment and accountability systems. Participation will help ensure that American schools address the learning needs of the diverse student population.

Excerpted from All Kids Count by Julia K. Landau, Janet R. Vohs, and Carolyn A. Romano, Parents Engaged in Education Reform (PEER Project), Federation for Children with Special Needs, Boston, Massachusetts.
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