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NAEP Plan for Testing Special Groups Gets Public Airing

By Mary Ann Zehr — November 17, 2009 3 min read
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The National Assessment of Educational Progress should be as inclusive as possible of English-language learners and students with disabilities, representatives of education organizations testified last week at a hearing here on proposals to bring more uniformity and coherence to testing those populations. But the testimony yielded some disagreement about how NAEP policymakers plan to do that.

The National Assessment Governing Board has been grappling with the issue for a decade. It is concerned that testing accommodations and exclusion rates for those two groups vary widely among states and districts, possibly jeopardizing the fairness and validity of comparisons with NAEP data. The board plans to vote on policies addressing the issue at its March meeting.

Accommodation Confusion

Particularly controversial at the hearing was the board’s proposal to permit students with disabilities to receive only NAGB-approved accommodations and not all those that may be 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.” Students and parents are confused, she said, if students can’t use the same accommodations for NAEP they are accustomed to using.

For example, she said, some students with disabilities are permitted to take a test over a period of days, an accommodation prohibited for NAEP.

Lawrence Feinberg, a NAGB staff member, said the prohibition is 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 others to complete the test.

Representatives of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education and the National Education Association also addressed the frustration students might experience with different sets of accommodations.

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.

Agreement on ELLs

Those who testified were largely in favor of the board’s proposals concerning inclusion of English-learners in testing.

Currently, NAEP provides Spanish translations and bilingual dictionaries for its tests of math and science, but not for reading and writing. The governing board proposes that reading and writing tests continue to be administered only in English, but for the native-language support, such as Spanish translations, to be extended to all other subjects.

The proposal also calls for a “plain English” version to be created for each test, although authentic passages used in the assessments would not be altered.

NAGB also proposes that all English-learners who have been in U.S. schools for at least a year be eligible to participate and that the reporting of their test scores be matched with students’ levels of English proficiency. English proficiency would be determined by the same tests that states use 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 wants to create “a brief, easily administered” test of English-language proficiency that would identify 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 favored the proposed policy changes for ELLs. She further recommends that the federal government set up a “national language panel” to study language development and acquisition and to produce a set of guiding principles for educators and NAEP.

Ms. Leos is now the president of the Global Institute for Language and Literacy Development, a Washington-based policy institute she formed after resigning from the Education Department in September 2008.

Luis Martinez, a senior policy analyst specializing in English-learners at the NEA, supported the accommodations for ELLs proposed by the board, such as side-by-side Spanish-English test booklets and test directions that are written in plain English. He said the union 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 as NAEP Plan for Testing Special Groups Gets Public Airing


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