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Statewide Assessment: Policy Issues & Questions

Parents and advocacy groups: What do you say when you talk to your state officials about high stakes tests and statewide education assessments? Read this article for questions you can ask to assess the full and fair inclusion of students with disabilities. Assure that they receive the accommodations they need to show what they know.

This policy paper provides a list of questions that parents and parent organizations can address in an effort to ensure that statewide assessment systems fully and fairly include students with disabilities. In the past, students with disabilities have too often been excluded from large-scale assessments. However, students with disabilities now must be included in state assessment programs with appropriate accommodations, as required by the recent amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Statewide assessments have enormous ramifications for students with disabilities. Assessments frequently serve as the cornerstone of efforts to improve education. If students with disabilities are excluded from the development and administration of statewide assessments, it is less likely that they will benefit from overall school reform improvements. Also, statewide assessments can be a way to hold schools accountable for improving educational outcomes for all students. If students with disabilities are excluded, they may not be considered when important educational policy decisions are made.

Statewide assessments are different from the three- year individualized evaluations required by IDEA for students receiving special education services. For students in special education, a variety of tests and assessments are used to determine whether the student continues to need special education and to identify the student’s specific educational needs. In contrast, statewide large- scale assessments are usually standardized, “paper and pencil” assessments. The goals of statewide assessment programs also differ from those of special education assessments. Usually, the purpose of a large- scale assessment is two-fold: 1) to provide information about individual student achievement, and 2) to gauge the success of schools and school systems - to hold educators accountable for student attainment of educational outcomes.

Almost all states now have some type of statewide assessment program as a result of education reform initiatives. Many states will now need to revise their assessment policies in order to comply with new IDEA amendments and ensure participation of all students with disabilities. Parents who are knowledgeable about diverse learners (including students with IEPs) need to become active participants in the development of assessment policies. The following questions are intended as a guide to effective participation during this period of reform and change.

What type of assessment will the state use?

It is important to know what kind of assessment your state administers. Typically, a state’s assessment includes one or more of the following types of assessments: 1) multiple- choice questions; 2) performance- based assessments, in which students demonstrate their knowledge through short- answer, open- ended, and essay questions; and 3) portfolio assessment, in which examples of students’ work (essays, models, or reports) are assembled to document student progress.

Find out which type of assessment your state will administer, and the subject areas covered, then analyze what you think will best meet the needs of students with disabilities.

Which assessment or which contractor will the state use?

Find out if your state will use assessments that have already been developed (“off- the- shelf” assessments) or if the state will develop its own assessment, aligned with the state’s standards. Ensure that the company selected to administer or develop the test has sufficient expertise and experience in assessing students with disabilities.

What is the process for developing the assessment?

It is important to design the assessments so that they do not discriminate against students with disabilities. Often when developing a new assessment, a bias committee is established. The bias committee, which traditionally addresses race discrimination, should also address discrimination on the basis of disability. Individuals with disabilities and individuals with expertise in disability bias should be included on the committee.

Such a committee is important because some test questions rely on information unavailable to a child because of his or her disability. In addition, students with all types and severities of disabilities should fully participate in all samples, trials, and field tests.

What are the “stakes” or consequences of the statewide assessment?

It is important for parents to know how test results will be used. Find out whether students are required to “pass” the assessment in order to receive a high school diploma. Many states link assessment results to graduation. Additionally, some states use assessment results as a basis for student promotion, student awards, or recognition of exemplary performance.

Furthermore, some states use assessment results as a direct accountability tool for educators and school systems, for example, linking test scores with bonuses, school funding, or accreditation.

Will all students with disabilities participate in the statewide assessment?

Among the most critical issues to explore are your state’s policy and practices for allowing students with disabilities to participate in the statewide assessment. Recent amendments to IDEA specifically require states to include all children with disabilities in assessment programs. The ADA and Section 504 similarly require participation of students with disabilities.

Despite these requirements, currently some states exempt certain groups of students with disabilities from the state assessment, based on disability categories, the child’s reading level, or the restrictiveness of the child’s placement. Other states already include all students in the assessment system, providing accommodations or alternate assessments that enable students with disabilities to participate fully.

It is crucial to ensure that all students with disabilities participate in the statewide assessment, as required by law. If students with disabilities are excluded from testing, there is no mechanism to determine whether these students receive the benefits of education reform. Further, if certain groups of disabled students are exempt, then the achievement of the excluded students will not be considered when evaluating a school or school district’s performance. Schools will have less incentive to improve education for students whose scores do not count. For those states where test results have significant consequences for the individual students, such as receipt of a diploma, participation becomes even more critical.

Who determines if a student with disabilities needs accommodations in order to participate in the assessment?

IDEA now requires that a child’s IEP specify the need for modifications in the administration of a state (or district- wide) assessment. Through the IEP process, individualized decisions must be made regarding whether a student with a disability can participate in the statewide assessment “as is” (without accommodations) or whether the student requires accommodations in order to participate. In some cases the IEP team may determine that a student requires an alternate assessment in order to receive an equal opportunity to demonstrate his or her proficiency and achievement.

Most states currently rely on the IEP team to determine how students with disabilities will participate in the statewide assessment. The individual decisions regarding assessment are subject to due process procedures required by IDEA.

What type of accommodations are available to students with disabilities?

States currently have wide- ranging policies regarding the type of accommodations available for assessments. There are generally four types of accommodations that should be considered by the IEP team:

  • Timing of test: e.g., extended time, breaks, extending over days, time of day
  • Setting of test: e.g., small group, alone, front of room, carrel
  • Presentation of questions: e.g., large print, braille, readers, sign language, assistive technology
  • Methods of response: e.g., dictate to scribe, point to response, sign language, computer, tape recorder

Some states allow students to use the same accommodations for assessment that are included in students’ IEPs and used in classroom instruction. Other states have a limited list of “approved accommodations” that IEP teams must choose from. In this case, IEP teams should still be allowed to specify unlisted accommodations if necessary to ensure equal opportunity to participate in the assessment.

Accommodations necessary to remove barriers to participation must be provided. It is important to acknowledge that use of some types of accommodations can be controversial. These issues become most apparent when the accommodation is closely related to the skill being assessed (i.e., reading a reading test). State policy which allows IEP teams to consider the full range of accommodations, including those utilized in classroom instruction, such as a reader for all subjects, will best protect against discrimination in test administration. Such a policy is critical, especially for high- stakes tests.

IDEA recognizes that some students may require “alternate” assessments in order to participate in the state assessment system. The recent amendments to IDEA require states to develop and begin conducting alternate assessments no later than July 1, 2000.

How will the test results be used?

The way test results will be used at the classroom and school level is very important. This issue is especially critical for students who perform poorly on the assessment. Test results should be used to ensure that these students receive the instructional support and opportunities they need to improve their performance, and to further ensure that any remedial educational opportunities are provided in the mainstream. Test results should not be used as a basis for holding students back, tracking, or pull- out instruction, and the test results alone should not be used as basis for referral to special education.

How will the test scores of students with disabilities be reported?

States usually report school- wide and district- wide test scores, as well as individual student scores. Exclusion of students with disabilities from assessment has led to exclusion of many students from these reports. Recent amendments to IDEA require that school systems disaggregate as well as aggregate test scores of students with disabilities. Therefore, consistent with IDEA, states should report the scores of students with and without disabilities together (aggregating the scores), in addition to providing the test scores of students with disabilities separately (disaggregating the scores).

When the scores of students with disabilities and students without disabilities are reported together (“aggregated”), it is clear that the progress of all students will be given equal weight when evaluating the effectiveness of public school systems. At the same time, it is also important to provide mechanisms to separate the scores of students with disabilities in order to hold schools accountable for their achievement. Many states will need to change their reporting practices to comply with new IDEA reporting requirements.

All Kids Count offers parents, parent leaders, professionals, and other interested parties guidelines for participating in discussions about policies and practices related to inclusion of students with disabilities in large-scale assessments. The book includes a state-by-state report and executive summary of assessment policies and practices, an overview of policy issues, a glossary, a list of accommodations culled from states’ policies, a PEER Information Brief on assessment, and contact information for state Departments of Education and Parent Centers on Disability. (100 pages. 1998. $20.00) To order call 617/482-2915.

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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