Every Student Succeeds Act

ESSA Panel Weighs Rules for Testing for Those With Severe Cognitive Disabilities

By Christina A. Samuels — March 25, 2016 4 min read
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If you were following this week’s negotiated rulemaking sessions on the Every Student Succeeds Act (and if not, my colleague Alyson at Politics K-12 has written excellent recaps) you may already know that there was a collegial-but-intense discussion around assessing students with severe cognitive disabilities—so intense, in fact, that the policy experts involved in developing these regulations are forming a subcommittee to tackle this one issue.

Relatively few students are affected by this—most students covered under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act will take the same tests as their typically developing peers. But ESSA does mark a departure from the regulations that were in place under the No Child Left Behind Act. And, the topic illustrates the push and pull between advocates who would like to have the federal government lay down some bright lines for states to follow, and others who say that the point of ESSA was to allow states more flexibility in areas such as testing than they had before.

Some background. No Child Left Behind, the old version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, required student test scores to be reported by certain subgroups, including students with disabilities. But the law also allowed 1 percent of all students—approximately 10 percent of all students with disabilities—to take “alternate assessments” and still be counted as proficient. Schools were allowed to use alternate assessments for more than 1 percent of their student body if they chose to do so. However, all of those over the 1 percent cap—no matter how those students scored—would be considered “non-proficient.”

ESSA and the 1 Percent Testing Rule

ESSA, however, makes some changes that seem minor, but have significant repercussions. Now, a state must only allow 1 percent of its students to take alternate assessments. But the state is also prevented from placing testing restrictions on its districts. Districts are required to justify why they may need to exceed the 1 percent testing cap, and the state can provide oversight, but it cannot just tell a district not to do it. And it’s not difficult to imagine a scenario where exceeding the cap could be legitimately justified: students with cognitive disabilities are not evenly distributed throughout the state. Some districts have more of these students than others.

You can see where this could become difficult for a state. Imagine a state that oversees 10 school districts. Nine of those districts choose to give alternate assessments to 1 percent of their students. But the 10th district gives 2 percent of its students an alternate assessment. That state is now slightly over the 1 percent cap mandated by ESSA.

Waivers and Definition of ‘Significant Cognitive Disability’

The Education Department offered some questions on the 1 percent testing issue that negotiators wrestled with. For example, the Secretary of Education is able to grant a waiver to a state that exceeds the 1 percent testing limit, but under what circumstances should that be allowed? How can a state make sure that it stays under that 1 percent cap when it doesn’t have the authority to tell schools and districts how many students can use alternate assessments? Should the Education Department create a definition of “severe cognitive disability,” with the idea that this would keep schools and districts from administering too many alternate assessments?

That definition has always been left up to the states. But, as my colleague Alyson wrote in her synopsis of the discussion, Liz King, the director of education policy for the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, liked the idea of coming up with some kind of common set of guidelines. Others, such as Tony Evers, the state chief in Wisconsin, said that such a definition hasn’t been needed before, and it might conflict with IDEA (now 7 long years overdue for reauthorization).

The subcommittee that spun off from this discussion will dig more deeply into this question of federal guidelines. If negotiators do decide to go in this direction, they may use as a starting point a checklist that has already been drafted by the National Center and State Collaborative and by Dynamic Learning Maps, the two federally-funded consortia that created tests aligned with the Common Core State Standards for students with severe cognitive disabilities.

The checklist, developed for individualized educational program teams, offers some guidelines on just which students should be taking alternate assessments. Those guidelines speak to a student’s need for extensive, individualized and substantially adapted materials, for example—not a particular disability label, a belief that a student would score poorly on the regular tests, or a need for test accommodations.

We’ll have a better idea of how this will all play out when the negotiators get together again on April 6.

File photo: Special education teacher Greta Smith works with a student during class at Buhler Grade School in Buhler, Kan. in 2014. Students at the school were among those field-testing assessments aligned with the Common Core State Standards and designed for those with cognitive disabilities.—Steve Hebert for Education Week.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.