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Published in Print: April 19, 2000, as Researchers Warn of Possible Pitfalls In Spec. Ed. Testing

Researchers Warn of Possible Pitfalls In Spec. Ed. Testing

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Some types of alternative assessments and accommodations for special education students may present problems as states hurry to create new accountability systems, researchers warned here at the Council for Exceptional Children's recent annual conference.

Under the 1997 amendments to the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, states and districts must include students with disabilities in their assessments, to the extent appropriate, and report the students' scores. States have until July 1 to come up with guidelines for alternative-assessment systems for students who are deemed unable to take the regular tests even with accommodations.

Martha Thurlow, a co-director of the National Center on Educational Outcomes, based at the University of Minnesota, said more states are looking at implementing "out of level" testing for special education students, in which they would take tests designed for students at different grade levels, usually lower ones. Other states are considering extending the same rewards and punitive measures called for under "high stakes" tests for general education students to special education students as well.

Those efforts will have significant effects on students with disabilities, Ms. Thurlow said.

The NCEO released a report last month showing that states are struggling to create alternative-assessment systems and guidelines to determine which students should be considered for alternatives. ("States Report Trouble With Special Ed. Testing," March 15, 2000.)

The U.S. Department of Education is greatly concerned about those findings, said Kenneth R. Warlick, the director of the department's office of special education programs, or OSEP. His office is working with other Education Department offices, such as the office for civil rights, to issue a guidance that would clarify the alternative-assessment requirements in the IDEA. He said he did not know when the guidance would be released.

"Some of these states have a huge learning curve to go through to make this operational in the next year," Mr. Warlick said at the conference.

Alternative assessments are proving costly, about $150 to $200 each per student, he added. And state directors of special education have reported to him that teachers need much more professional development to be prepared to administer them.

Encouraging Independence

Special education experts consider assessments an integral part of ensuring that students with disabilities are given full educational opportunities and are being held to high academic standards. Ultimately, a student's individualized-education-plan team—the group of parents, teachers, and specialists that charts the child's educational course—decides whether the student should take an alternative assessment, or a regular assessment with or without special accommodations.

But signs of a backlash against testing such students have appeared. Martha Brooks, the special education director for the Delaware public schools, said she regularly fields complaints from parents and even some teachers after special education students are given the state assessment.

"They say, 'How could you do this to my poor little child with a disability?'" she said, adding that they are more understanding after she explains the rationale for the testing.

At the same time, said Louis Danielson, a research director for OSEP, states shouldn't make the testing process too easy for students with disabilities. He warned that providing too many accommodations, such as extra time and special settings to take the exams, could inadvertently hinder a child's path to independence.

"The number-one issue is to overaccommodate," he said. "Many accommodations are antithetical to the notion of independence."

Such accommodations sometimes result from educators' attempts to help disabled students avoid the punitive aspects of high-stakes tests, such as denial of high school graduation, Mr. Danielson added.

Currently, some testing companies flag the test scores of students who have received special accommodations. Mr. Danielson said the Education Department's civil rights office is considering forbidding that practice, which would reverse a previous OCR decision, out of a concern that college-admissions officers and others may look skeptically at such scores.

Vol. 19, Issue 32, Page 12

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