Government Offers Guidance On Standards and Testing

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New guidelines released by the Department of Education outline what states must do to comply with the requirements on standards and testing under the No Child Left Behind Act.

The "Standards and Assessments Peer Review Guidance" will be used to review state testing systems for compliance with the law. Department officials said this month that none of those reviews had been scheduled, but that they likely would begin in the fall.

Under the law, a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, states must test students in reading and mathematics annually in grades 3-8 and once in high school, beginning in the 2005-06 school year. They must test students annually in science at least once in elementary, middle, and high school, starting in 2007-08.

One of the biggest differences between the new guidance and that released under the previous version of the ESEA concerns the use of alternate assessments for students with disabilities who cannot participate in regular state tests, even with accommodations. Although states also were required to offer alternate assessments under the previous law, the earlier guidance offered few details about what those tests should look like.

"The biggest difference in terms of what they’re looking for is absolutely in the level of detail," said Alexa Pochowski, the assistant commissioner for learning services in the Kansas education department.

"They and we know so much more about how to appropriately assess all students, including students with the most severe cognitive disabilities," she said. "Because of that, I think they’re right on target."

A Link to Standards

According to the new guidance, dated April 28, as states expand their regular tests to include grades 3-8, they also must provide alternate assessments in those grades. If the alternate assessments are based on grade-level achievement standards, they must include the same grade-level content as the regular exams.

For students with the most significant cognitive disabilities, states also may develop alternate assessments based on other than grade-level standards. But the test materials should "show a clear link to the content standards for the grade in which the student is enrolled," the document says, "although the grade-level content may be reduced in complexity or modified to reflect prerequisite skills."

One of the biggest questions, the guidance says, is whether alternate achievement standards for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities must be clearly different from grade to grade. The document says that such standards should be linked to different content across grades to support individual growth.

But it adds that "the alternate achievement standards are not likely to show the same clearly defined advances in cognitive complexity as the achievement standards set for the regular test or an alternate assessment based on grade-level standards."

Alternate achievement standards that are restricted to "functional life skills," such as shopping and dressing, and are not linked to the state’s academic-content standards in any meaningful way, will not be acceptable to the department, according to the document.

English Proficiency

The guidance also makes it clear that all students with limited English proficiency must be included in state testing systems and provided with appropriate accommodations, where needed, on an individual basis.

Students newly enrolled in U.S. schools may participate in state reading tests and must take state math tests. LEP students who take such tests are not required to be included in determinations of adequate yearly progress during their first year of enrollment in U.S. schools. After that school year, states must provide alternate assessments linked to grade-level standards for students who have not yet acquired a level of proficiency in English that would allow them to take the regular tests, even with accommodations.

The guidance on the technical quality of state tests also has been updated to reflect the 1999 Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing, developed jointly by the American Psychological Association, the American Educational Research Association, and the National Council of Measurement in Education.

The guidance requires states to provide evidence of the validity and reliability of each exam, including alternate assessments. States also must conduct studies to determine the appropriateness of accommodations for students with disabilities and those with limited English skills, and the impact on test scores, including ensuring that scores based on accommodations can be "meaningfully combined" with scores based on tests given under normal conditions.

To determine whether states have met the law’s requirements, the federal government will use a peer-review process. Teams of experts in standards and testing will examine the evidence states submit. The teams will not review the tests and standards themselves.

Instead, they will look at such documents as: state laws and regulations; studies of whether the tests are aligned with state standards; written policies on providing accommodations for students with disabilities and limited English skills; and score reports.

Peer reviewers will provide feedback to help states strengthen their testing systems and make recommendations to the Education Department’s assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education regarding approval of each state’s system.

Vol. 23, Issue 38, Page 22

Published in Print: May 26, 2004, as Government Offers Guidance On Standards and Testing
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