States Report Trouble With Special Ed. Testing

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Many states are still struggling to create alternative assessment systems for special education students and to figure out which students should be tested using those alternatives, according to the results of a recent state-by-state survey.

And while more students with disabilities are being included in state tests of academic achievement, only 23 states can provide data on how many are participating, according to the survey by the National Center on Educational Outcomes at the University of Minnesota. The research group has studied assessments for the disabled since 1991, and has repeatedly warned state leaders of their obligations under the 1997 amendments to the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. ("Special Education: Examining Costs," Sept. 22, 1999.)

The survey also found that reported participation rates varied greatly among those states that could provide such data, as did the types of testing accommodations provided to students.

NCEO Director Martha L. Thurlow said there are many "understandable" reasons for the variability. She added, though, "It's time we would expect there to be an aggressive push to meet the letter of the law and the intent of the law."

Under the 1997 amendments to the IDEA, states are required to include as many special education students as possible in regular assessments, with appropriate accommodations, and to create alternative assessments for students judged to be unable to take the regular tests. States are also required to monitor the participation rates of students with disabilities taking assessments, something most states reported having trouble doing, the Minnesota researchers found.

The amendments also require states to have a system for administering alternative assessments, based on standards for disabled students, in place by July 1.

Use of Standards Varies

Of the 43 states that responded to the NCEO's survey, nearly half reported that they were using the same standards, or some variation, as they did for regular students. Eight states were developing different standards, and 14 were uncertain about what standards they would use.

Luzanne Pierce, a technical-assistance specialist at the Alexandria, Va.-based National Association of State Directors of Special Education, said states see the importance of including disabled students in assessments, and are doing the best they can to comply with the IDEA requirements.

"This is a very large group of students with very different and diverse needs," she said. "It's a complicated process."

But the problems cited by the NCEO report could interfere with the rights of disabled students to be included and reported in state and local assessments, advocates say. Including disabled students in assessments, they say, is crucial to determining whether they are getting appropriate educations and meeting their potential.

"If the kids are not part of the assessments, the schools do not have the information they need to figure out what's best for the school and kids with disabilities," said Lynda Van Kuren, a spokeswoman for the Council for Exceptional Children, a Reston, Va.-based special education advocacy group.

NAEP Also Studied

Meanwhile, a separate federal study on the National Assessment of Educational Progress—a sampling of student progress often known as the nation's report card—shows that most disabled students are not taking those tests.

Rules governing the national tests allow schools to exclude students they feel incapable of taking the exams. Testing experts worry that the IDEA requirements and varying rates of inclusion of disabled students could skew the scores in some states.

A federally funded study estimated that at least half of all special-needs students—defined as disabled or limited English proficient—were excluded from the exams in 1992 and 1994.

The study, released by the National Center on Education Statistics last month, surveyed schools on their inclusion rates of disabled and LEP students. The researchers are conducting a larger study on the 1998 NAEP to see whether the exclusion rates affected scores, a debate that has arisen in the testing community.

The U.S. Department of Education's office of special education programs is urging NAEP's governing board to make the test more inclusive and expand the accommodations so that more disabled students may be represented in its samples, according to an official at OSEP.

Vol. 19, Issue 27, Page 24

Published in Print: March 15, 2000, as States Report Trouble With Special Ed. Testing
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