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Rhetoric Outstrips Reality in Assessing Special-Needs Students

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This is the fourth story in an occasional series that will examine trends in assessment and new ways of measuring what students know and are able to do.

As part of the national push to hold all students to higher standards, states are being told to include in their assessment systems the 5.2 million U.S. students with disabilities and the roughly three million who are learning English as their second language.

Policymakers argue that to be truly responsible for all children, schools must know how such special-needs students are performing academically. And most educators agree that too many such students have been excluded in the past.

But in most places, the rhetoric is far ahead of the reality in the movement to include more children in large-scale assessments.

Educators in most cases are just starting to grapple with the complex issues involved. Everyone seems to understand the "whys" of inclusion; the "hows," though, are proving difficult.

Many people are calling for schools to enable more special-needs students to be tested through certain accommodations--such as giving students more time to complete tests, offering large-print or Braille versions, allowing oral test directions, and providing dictionaries. But even the experts say they want more research on how such accommodations could influence the reliability and comparability of test scores and how the results should be reported and interpreted.

The playing field in this area is clearly uneven. States vary wildly in the extent to which they include special-needs students in their assessment programs. In many cases, states do not keep data on who is included and who is not.

The push to include more special-needs students also runs counter to a deeply embedded notion: If schools include such students, test scores will drop.

Despite the uncertainties, many observers argue that the efforts under way in a number of states to revise their assessment programs offer the opportunity to consider special-needs students at the development stages of a testing system--rather than trying to fit them into an existing system.

National Models

Two key pieces of federal education law--the Goals 2000: Educate America Act and the recently reauthorized Title I compensatory-education program--include a push for greater inclusion of special-needs students in testing.

The laws call for "reasonable accommodations" of such students in assessment. They also call for states to "make every effort" to produce assessments in the languages other than English that the states deem necessary.

In addition, the U.S. Education Department plans to push for greater testing inclusion as part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which Congress is expected to reauthorize sometime this year. (See related story.)

But some states fear that federal resources--in the form of technical assistance and grants--may not be sufficient to help them undertake such a complex and costly effort.

"We can't do this by ourselves without their help," said Julie P. McCargar, who runs Tennessee's English-as-a-second-language programs.

"I mean, who am I going to turn to? We don't have a lot of people with this expertise at the state level," she said.

There are, however, some national models from which to draw. For the first time, the National Assessment(See Educational Progress this year included field-tests of a Spanish-language version of some test subjects and various accommodations for students with disabilities. (See related story

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