May 29, 2002 2 min read

Off-Grade Testing

Many states use “out of level” testing—the administration of a test at a lower grade level than the one in which a student is enrolled—as a way of including all students in statewide testing programs. A study by researchers Martha L. Thurlow and Jane E. Minnema suggests, however, that political pressures may drive such practices, rather than research findings.

Federal law requires states to involve all students, including those with disabilities, in their testing programs. As of September 2000, 12 states permitted out-of-level testing as one way to comply with the law: Alaska, Arizona, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Louisiana, North Dakota, South Carolina, Utah, Vermont, and West Virginia.

But the researchers, with the National Center on Educational Outcomes at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, found little commonality among state policies.

While some states had detailed procedures for testing students out of level, for example, others simply required that performance data be available to support such decisions. Some states limited off-level testing to one grade below a student’s enrolled grade, while others permitted testing at whatever level was necessary to match a student’s instruction.

Finally, while some states viewed such practices as “modifications” or “accommodations” to state tests, others labeled them “alternate assessments.” Most states did not specifically monitor out-of- level testing at the local level.

“There are no research studies to date that comprehensively demonstrate the value or lack therein of testing students out of level,” the researchers write in their forthcoming study.

“What we seem to have in out-of-level testing is a political animal,” they add. “One indication of this is the rapidly changing landscape of which states allow out- of-level testing.”

As of January of this year, Alaska and North Dakota had dropped their out-of-level testing policies, while Hawaii, Mississippi, Oregon, and Texas had added the practice.

Absent a set of guidelines that supports the appropriate use of out-of-level testing, the authors suggest, states should tread carefully.

To complicate the problem further, they note, no consensus has formed on how to incorporate the results from such tests into state accountability and reporting systems. At a minimum, they argue, states should monitor such practices to ensure that the selection of students for out-of- level testing is as appropriate as possible, and publicly report all results.

—Lynn Olson

A version of this article appeared in the May 29, 2002 edition of Education Week


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