Public Weighs In on NAEP Testing of Special Populations

By Mary Ann Zehr — February 05, 2009 4 min read

Creating an alternative assessment for some students with disabilities is one change the governing board for the National Assessment of Educational Progress should make to better include all students in the testing program, educators told the board at a public hearing here last week.

The Feb. 4 hearing was one of two—the other took place Jan. 30 in El Paso, Texas—hosted by the National Assessment Governing Board on recommendations it plans to make for including more English-language learners and students with disabilities in the federally sponsored NAEP. Three of the six people who had signed up to provide testimony for last week’s hearing showed up in person to deliver it; the hearing lasted only an hour.

States must take part in NAEP reading and mathematics tests every two years to get Title I funds, federal money channeled to schools with disadvantaged children.

Currently, the governing board matches NAEP testing conditions for ELLs and students with disabilities with those that states use for their regular tests. Different state policies on test accommodations and exclusions make the comparison of scores between states difficult and lead some educators and researchers to question their validity.

The governing board, known as NAGB, does have a couple of policies that it applies to all states. It prohibits districts from having someone read aloud test directions or items to students. And it allows the use of calculators only on one section of the math test, not the whole test.

Among the changes in current procedures that NAGB is considering: adopting uniform national rules for test accommodations and exclusions, using tests with differing levels of difficulty for students, having some students take a screening test to determine if they should take NAEP, or adjusting test scores to account for the exclusion of students.

Creating an alternative test for students with disabilities is not among the recommendations.

Alternative Assessments

At the hearing, Patricia K. Ralabate, a senior policy analyst for the National Education Association, argued that the governing board should craft an alternative assessment or modified NAEP for students with disabilities that uses computer-adaptive techniques.

“It could create a situation for NAEP to be in the forefront of testing,” Ms. Ralabate said. She urged the board to increase the number of accommodations it permits for use on NAEP.

Ricki Sabia, the associate director of the national policy center of the National Down Syndrome Society, in New York, requested as well that NAGB devise an alternative test. She said the test should be designated only for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities.

Ms. Sabia expressed concerns about Ms. Ralabate’s idea of crafting a test with computer-adaptive techniques, however. She said that “a lot of students have scattered skills,” so it wouldn’t be beneficial if a computerized test stopped a student when he or she answered a particular question wrong rather than continuing to put questions before the child that are in some ways more difficult. Some students have pockets of academic strength that a computer-adaptive test might not pick up on, Ms. Sabia said.

She said the two organizations she represented in her testimony, the National Down Syndrome Society and the Atlanta-based National Down Syndrome Congress, support the use of a screening test. She said it should be used, though, not to determine whether a student should be excluded from NAEP, but rather whether the student should take an alternative test.

Ms. Sabia said she was opposed to having the governing board adjust test scores to take exclusion rates into account. Parents don’t understand test scores well as it is, she said, and to report adjusted test scores would make transparency more difficult, she argued.

“The status quo is resulting in high exclusion” rates and inaccuracy in test scores, Laura Kaloi, the public-policy director for the New York-based National Center for Learning Disabilities, a policy and resource center, said in her testimony.

Her group supports research into the development of an alternative assessment for students with the most severe disabilities, said Ms. Kaloi, who added that it doesn’t support the use of adjusted scores.

The governing board has wrestled with how to include ELLs and students with disabilities in NAEP for more than a decade. Until the early 1990s, if students were deemed by their schools to be unable to participate meaningfully, they could be excluded.

NAGB started to permit test accommodations on the assessment in 1996, after the reauthorization of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act required that students’ individualized education programs, or IEPs, say what kinds of test accommodation the students are entitled to.

‘Decision Tree’

NAGB had to permit accommodations or schools would exclude students who required them. Several years ago, the board created a so-called “decision tree,” intended to give schools help in determining whether students with disabilities or limited English ability should take NAEP and under what conditions. (“Testing Officials Again Tackle Accommodations And Exclusions for Special Student Populations,” July 16, 2008.)

But at the hearing, Ms. Ralabate said she’d prefer a decision tree that helps educators determine which test accommodations to use for a child. The current decision tree provided for NAEP, she added, has been applied in a wide variety of ways, leading to disparities in exclusion rates even within a state.

Board members Oscar Troncoso, Alexa Posny, and Susan Pimental, and Mary Crovo, the interim executive director of the board, were present to host the hearing. The three board members are part of a seven-member ad hoc committee that is expected to make final recommendations in May.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 11, 2009 edition of Education Week as Public Weighs in on NAEP Testing of Special Groups


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