NAEP Plan for Students With Disabilities Criticized

By Mary Ann Zehr — November 10, 2009 5 min read

Representatives of education organizations who appeared at a Nov. 9 public hearing here in the nation’s capital agreed with the governing board for the National Assessment of Educational Progress that the “nation’s report card” should be as inclusive as possible of English-language learners and students with disabilities. They didn’t agree, though, with all of the board’s proposals for how to do that.

Oscar Troncoso, a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP, and Lawrence Feinberg, a NAGB staff member, heard three hours of testimony on the board’s proposals for how to bring more uniformity and coherence to policies for testing ELLs and students with disabilities, an issue the board has been grappling with for a decade. The board is concerned that testing accommodations and exclusion rates for those two groups of students vary widely among states and school districts, possibly jeopardizing the fairness and validity of comparisons made with NAEP data. The board plans to vote on policies addressing the issue at its March meeting.

Particularly controversial at the hearing was the board’s proposal that students with disabilities be permitted to receive only accommodations approved by NAGB and not all of those that may appear in their individual education programs, or IEPs.

“We are concerned,” said Kim Hymes, the director of policy and advocacy at the Arlington, Va.-based Council for Exceptional Children, “that preventing an accommodation which is approved by a student’s IEP team may produce NAEP test results which don’t reflect that student’s knowledge and skills.” She added that students and parents are confused if students can’t use the same testing accommodations for NAEP that they are accustomed to using.

For example, she said, some students with disabilities are permitted to take a standardized test over a period of days, which is an accommodation that isn’t permitted for NAEP. She asked the board to reconsider its policy.

Practical Considerations

Mr. Feinberg explained that the board doesn’t permit that accommodation mostly for practical reasons, given that it is costly to hire staff to visit schools to administer the tests on more than one day. He noted that students with disabilities are, however, permitted to take twice the time within a single day as other students to complete the test.

Members of two other education organizations—the National Association of State Directors of Special Education and the National Education Association—took a similar position that it would be frustrating for students with disabilities not to be able to use on NAEP the accommodations that they are normally permitted to use on state tests.

To help address the problem, Patricia K. Ralabate, a senior policy analyst for the NEA, said the board should consider creating test items based on universal-design principles, such as using very straightforward language, called “plain English,” in test items.

A number of people giving testimony at the hearing were confused by the board’s proposal to use “targeted testing” for some students with disabilities, which they interpreted to be a separate test from the regular NAEP test. Sharon Lewis, the research director of the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools, said her organization doesn’t support the use of paper-and-pencil targeted tests. She said the organization doesn’t want students to be “aware of being singled out” to take a special test.

But when Mr. Feinberg explained that targeted testing means merely “adaptive testing,” in which some students are given questions clustered at either the high end or low end of the spectrum of the level of difficulty of test items, people giving testimony weren’t opposed to the board’s proposal. But Ms. Lewis said her organization would still like to see that test be a computerized adaptive test rather than a pencil-and-paper one.

Mr. Feinberg said the board had proposed that initially the targeted test would be in pencil-and-paper form, but that it would eventually be computerized.

Agreement on English-Learners

Representatives of education groups testifying at the hearing were largely in favor of the board’s proposals concerning inclusion of ELLs in testing.

Currently, NAEP provides Spanish translations and bilingual dictionaries for its tests of math and science, but not for reading and writing. The board’s proposal is for reading and writing to continue to be administered only in English, but for the native-language support, such as Spanish translations, to be extended to NAEP tests in all other subjects, including U.S. history and geography.

The proposal also calls for a “plain English” version to be created for each test. In such a version, test items are written in straightforward English. The board proposes that authentic passages or quotations used in reading or other assessments not be altered.

NAGB also proposes that all ELLs who have been in U.S. schools for at least a year be eligible to participate, and that the reporting of test scores for ELLs also be matched with students’ levels of English proficiency. The board proposes that English proficiency be determined by the same tests that states are now using to measure annual progress in English for accountability purposes under the No Child Left Behind Act, even though those tests vary from state to state.

For the long term, the board proposes creating “a brief, easily administered” test of English-language proficiency that would identify NAEP test-takers as having beginning, intermediate, or advanced levels of proficiency.

Kathleen Leos, a former director of the U.S. Department of Education’s office of English-language acquisition, testified that she was in favor of the proposed changes for policy concerning ELLs, but she had one additional recommendation. She said she’d like to see the federal government create a “national language panel,” similar to the national panels that have been previously formed on literacy and on reading, to study language development and language acquisition and produce a set of guiding principles for educators and NAEP.

Ms. Leos testified in her role as the president of the Global Institute for Language and Literacy Development, a Washington-based policy institute she formed after she resigned from the Education Department in September 2008.

Luis Martinez, a senior policy analyst specializing in ELLs at the National Education Association, testified in support of the testing accommodations for ELLs proposed by NAGB, such as side-by-side Spanish-English test booklets and test directions and items that are written in plain English. He said the NEA supports the disaggregation of data about ELLs on NAEP, but urges the board to continue to ensure that “data obtained from ELL students should be used strictly for research and analysis purposes only and to refine classroom instruction.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 18, 2009 edition of Education Week


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