Fed Agencies Spar Over NAEP for Special Populations

August 21, 2012 6 min read
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Despite a pending policy change aimed at including more students with disabilities and English-language learners in the “nation’s report card,” the federal agency that administers the national testing program appears to be softening the penalty for states that fail to improve inclusion rates.

The disagreement underscores the uneasy relationship between the National Center for Education Statistics, the federal agency that administers the national tests, and the National Assessment Governing Board, the independent body that sets policy for the exams. And it reflects an intensifying debate about how to ensure that the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a congressionally mandated set of tests designed to take the national pulse on student achievement, accurately allows for state-by-state comparisons of student achievement.

“These issues, as all issues with students with disabilities and English-language learners, are hot potatoes,” said Cornelia Orr, the governing board’s executive director.

Two years ago, NAGB adopted a policy that takes effect in January, during the next administration of NAEP, to limit how many students with disabilities and English-learners states can be cut from the testing pool. The policy says, essentially, that only students with severe cognitive disabilities and English-language learners who have been in the country for less than one year should be excluded from taking the exams in reading, mathematics, and other subjects.

Grade 4 Reading

If a new policy about including more students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress had been in effect in 2011, fewer students with disabilities and English-language learners would have been excluded from taking the exam. Federal statisticians estimate that the resulting changes in some states’ exclusion rates would have led, in turn, to lower scores on the 4th grade reading exam that year.


SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics

Nationwide, some 830,000 4th and 8th graders from nearly 18,000 schools will take the tests in reading and math next year.

“The impetus for the NAEP policy was to push states to smooth out those state exclusion rates, to have the same proportion of students being tested across states,” Ms. Orr said.

As written, that policy would help make NAEP scores more comparable from state to state. As it now stands, states that exclude more students with disabilities and ELLs have a record of posting better scores than states that are more inclusive.

Case in Point

For example, in 2011, of 4th grade students with disabilities in the testing pool, Maryland included less than a third—31 percent—on the reading test. Other states included as many as 90 percent or more of those students, and the size of the testing pool—2,500 to 3,000 students—is the same in each state. Maryland posted among the highest 4th grade reading scores in the country that year, and it was one of the few states to improve its scores from previous years.

The discrepancies from state to state over which students are tested—and which are not—have been especially frustrating for states that have been more inclusive but have found their NAEP scores stagnating.

Florida’s commissioner of education, Gerard Robinson, wrote to NAGB earlier this year, saying the board should consider a policy of only reporting or using state-level results if the minimum standards of inclusion are met.

NAGB’s new policy says that the proportion of all students excluded from NAEP should not be more than 5 percent and that states should push to include 85 percent of all students with disabilities and ELLs identified to be part of the testing pool.

“This would ensure the validity of the reported results for the nation and for the participating states,” wrote Mr. Robinson, whose state is among those with lower exclusion rates. “States not meeting the minimum standards should face funding sanctions.”

From the beginning, the NCES, a branch of the U.S. Department of Education, disagreed with the policy, although the agency agreed with the greater goal of inclusion. (“NAEP Board Curbs Special Ed. and ELL Exclusions,” March 17, 2010.) At the time it was adopted, Stuart Kerachsky, then acting commissioner of NCES, said that the statistics agency harbored concerns about “flagging” individual states’ exclusion rates.

Reason for Disagreeing

“There is no statistical basis for such standards,” he wrote in a letter just days before the policy was adopted. “For that reason alone, NCES is unable to support this recommendation: We would be implicitly impugning jurisdiction results... without cause.”

By law, the NCES is required to implement NAGB policy but, as this episode demonstrates, it has some degree of discretion to do so as it sees fit.

As created, the NAGB policy envisions dinging states that continue to exclude students with disabilities and ELLs from the testing pool when scores were tabulated.

The penalty would operate this way: Under the technical rules that guide NAEP, the federal agency is directed to impute, or estimate, the scores of such excluded students. In other words, if students with disabilities are excluded, their scores would still count in the calculation, using the average scores of other students with disabilities who were tested.

“Since students with disabilities tend to score lower on average than other students, disabled students ... would receive the same scores as similar disabled students, thus lowering the average,” said Peggy Carr, the NCES’ associate commissioner in the assessment division.

So the NCES is not planning to enact that penalty, she said.

But the NCES’ plans are “contrary to the NAGB policy,” said Lawrence Feinberg, the governing board’s assistant director for reporting and analysis. “There’s no question about that.”

Advocates Object

With the threat of lower scores removed, any pressure on states to be more inclusive of special education students and English-language learners evaporates, say advocates for those groups.

“We want the sample to be more exemplary of students” with disabilities, said Laura Kaloi, the public-policy director for the National Center for Learning Disabilities, in New York City. “Why are schools more focused on excluding students that they don’t believe can pass than [on] looking at why so many can’t pass a grade-level exam?”

One complicating wrinkle in that debate is that NAEP doesn’t allow all of the same accommodations for students with disabilities or students learning English on its tests that states typically permit. Some states, for example, allow portions of their state exams, including the reading sections, to be read aloud as designated in a students’ individualized education program, or IEP. But NAEP doesn’t. However, NAGB wants most students with disabilities to take the exam even if there is an accommodation they are accustomed to but cannot use on the national assessment.

That’s partly why so many students with disabilities in Maryland have historically not taken NAEP, said Mary Gable, the assistant state superintendent for academic policy. Schools have a legal responsibility to carry out students’ IEPS, Ms. Gable said. She believes the state would be violating federal law if students whose plans say they are entitled to the read-aloud accommodation had to take NAEP without it.

There’s a similar issue in Kentucky, which also has high exclusion rates.

No Stakes

Mr. Feinberg said NAGB’s understanding is that students could take NAEP even without every accommodation their education plans require, especially because the tests have no stakes for any individual student, such as determining whether students should be promoted to the next grade, and no records are kept about which students were tested.

Beyond the read-aloud issue, nearly all other accommodations are allowed on NAEP, such as additional time for testing, one-on-one testing, small-group testing, bilingual Spanish-English test booklets for subjects other than reading and writing, additional breaks, and having directions read in sign language.

Including more students with disabilities on the math test may be less of an issue. NAEP only allows calculators on some portions of math, but some special education students are entitled to calculators any time they are working on that subject.

To encourage their participation, Ms. Carr said, those students will be assigned the portion of NAEP that allows calculators.

Assistant Editor Stephen Sawchuk contributed to this report.

Nirvi Shah, Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the August 22, 2012 edition of Education Week as Split Erupts Over NAEP Exclusions


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