Alternate-Test Plans Prove Challenging

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Three years ago, after a hard-fought battle to reauthorize the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, special education advocates were promised a crown jewel.

For the first time, the academic progress of students with disabilities would be assessed and recorded along with that of their peers in regular programs—a policy shift that advocates see as a powerful spur to educational equity. Even students who were unable to take regular tests with special accommodations would be included.

The new IDEA amendments gave states three years—and much flexibility—to create systems for alternative assessment of students with the most serious disabilities. Now, states are facing the July 1 deadline for meeting that requirement, and the crown jewel promised in 1997 has proved a bit elusive.

A new report from a federally financed research center shows that most states are not yet using alternative assessments, though most are close to being able to do so.

States have been developing guidelines, procedures, and training at a "feverish pace" in recent weeks, according to the National Center on Educational Outcomes, based at the University of Minnesota. And states have made significant progress in the past year in putting together and pilot- testing systems to help chart the educational progress of pupils with the greatest disabilities, the report says.

"Many, many states have been getting their act together," Martha Thurlow, the center's co-director, said last week. "I say this knowing there are hills and valleys all along the way in the development process." But for many states, figuring out how to score those tests and report the scores remains a challenge, according to the report, which will be released late this week in Snowbird, Utah, at the Council of Chief State School Officers' annual conference on large-scale assessment.

Martha Thurlow

States are coming up with a wide range of strategies for identifying and assessing students who can't be accommodated in regular assessment programs. Some states have adopted methods including portfolios of student work, videotapes and eyewitness accounts of a student's skills and behavior, interviews and surveys of parents and others, and "real world" performance indicators.

Crafting statewide guidelines for identifying and assessing a diverse group of severely disabled students has been daunting, many experts agree. Few, if any, of those students are expected to graduate from high school or meet academic standards set for their nondisabled peers.

"One thing that this process has pointed out is that kids with more severe disabilities have typically been getting very idiosyncratic services," said Ken Olsen, the director of the Mid-South Regional Resource Center at the University of Kentucky. "Each curriculum for each kid is very different."

He added, "It'll take many, many years to install something that's going to work smoothly."

Additional Pieces Remain

Ms. Thurlow said that while states have made "surprising" progress since the NCEO reported results from a survey on alternative assessment last year, many more pieces remain to be fit into the puzzle.

Testing experts say that only a small percentage of students, between 1 percent and 2 percent of all students at a given grade level, is likely to need the alternative assessments. Mostly, they will be students whose disabilities are so severe that they cannot take the regular assessments, even with extensive accommodations, such as extra time to complete the tests or assistance in reading or transcribing the questions. Many states, in fact, have designed systems that are based on a separate set of special education standards or skills, rather than the regular curriculum, according to the NCEO.

But the federal government gave states little guidance on how to go about setting up such systems, leaving state officials to make decisions on eligibility, types of assessment, and alignment of alternative tests with state academic standards. And while it seemed that the deadline gave ample time—it is the last major piece of the 1997 IDEA amendments to go into effect—many states have been struggling to meet the deadline.

"We're all in the same boat; for something so new, we didn't have other state systems to look at," said Virginia C. Beridon, the state special education director for Louisiana. Her state is currently pilot-testing its system and will meet the July 1 deadline. But she said some states may have rushed to put faulty systems in place to meet the deadline and will have to make major revisions later.

"Fine-tuning is one thing, but overhauling a system is expensive and time-consuming," she said. "But when you have a mandate, you do your part."

Judith E. Heumann, the Department of Education's assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, said she and other federal officials had spent much time discussing the time frame for the alternative-assessment systems.

The department deliberately left the guidelines for setting up a system vague in order to give states leeway to align the tests with their own standards, another department official said.

Judith E. Heumann

The state with the most extensive experience in alternative assessment of students with disabilities is Kentucky, which passed a groundbreaking law to hold its education system accountable, the Kentucky Education Reform Act, in 1990. That law mandated that all students, regardless of ability, be assessed, and the state created an alternative assessment based on a portfolio system that documents a student's work and progress over a period of several years.

Less than 1 percent of all Kentucky students are eligible for the alternative assessment, and their tests are independently scored and recorded with the scores of the students' local schools.

Accountability Demands

The accountability movement in special education has seen some resistance from some parents and educators in recent months, as states continue to work with the IDEA requirements that students with disabilities be tested and that the results be reported along with those for other students.

So far, Ms. Heumann said, disabled students who have taken regular assessments have lagged behind their peers in test scores. But those scores have been improving.

States are still struggling to figure out how alternative assessments fit into high-stakes testing, such as high school exit exams, said Ms. Thurlow of the NCEO. Aside from Kentucky, few states that have high-stakes tests have even begun to find ways to work alternative assessments into those requirements.

Other obstacles remain as well. Louisiana, for instance, has many uncertified teachers, and training them to use the assessment system, on top of the other preparation they need, has been a problem, Ms. Beridon said.

Some states are also finding students who cannot take the regular assessments, even with accommodations, but who also do not fit the criteria for alternative assessments.

Sandy Thompson, a research associate at NCEO, said there are some students who are working toward grade-level standards, but are so far behind that they cannot take the regular assessment and get a meaningful score.

"We have a middle area we really need to address," she said. Others say that making sure that students with disabilities receive an appropriate education is still a challenge in many schools and that the new assessment systems will bring many problems to light.

"The real issue isn't assessment; the real issue is getting kids involved in the general curriculum," said Bill East, the executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, which has consistently supported the new IDEA assessment provisions. Schools will continue to struggle with assessment issues in special education over the next few years, he said, until all students with disabilities have access to the regular curriculum and high standards.

Ms. Heumann agreed.

"The issue of assessment is finally allowing us to have a more serious discussion related to testing, learning, and results," she said. "It's critically important to make sure that disabled kids are viewed as being able to have the same potential as nondisabled kids."

Vol. 19, Issue 41, Pages 1, 18-19

Published in Print: June 21, 2000, as Alternate-Test Plans Prove Challenging
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