Special Education

Alternate Assessments Proving to Be a Challenge for States

By Christina A. Samuels — October 10, 2006 5 min read
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States are grappling with the task of creating alternate assessments for students with significant cognitive disabilities that will pass muster with federal officials for use under the No Child Left Behind Act.

Such assessments show promise for spurring the academic performance of students who cannot take general tests even with special accommodations, such as extra time or use of calculators. But coming up with alternate tests for such students that are technically sound and measure the skills they are intended to gauge has been a challenge for many states, recent U.S. Department of Education reviews of state testing systems suggest.

Tests in Special Education

Alternate assessments required under federal law for students with significant cognitive disabilities fall into three broad categories.

Portfolio Assessment:
An organized gathering of student work that illustrates a student’s skills and is measured against predetermined scoring criteria.

Performance Assessment:
A task or series of tasks requiring a student to provide a response or create a product to show mastery of a specific skill or content standard.

Rating Scales or Checklist Assessment:
Teacher observation of a student’s skills over a period of time, measured against a state-created scoring guide.

SOURCES: National Center for Educational Outcomes; Council of Chief State School Officers

Unlike tests given to the general student population, which often use identical items and are scored by third parties, alternate assessments are tailored to each student’s method of communication. Some students may only be able to communicate through eyeblinks that control computers; others may be able to manipulate response cards.

The Education Department leaves it up to each state to determine just what a “significant” cognitive impairment is. The department does say that research suggests no more than 1 percent of the student population—about 10 percent of all students with disabilities—should fall into that category.

Under federal rules for testing under the No Child Left Behind law, up to 1 percent of a district’s or school’s testing population can take alternate assessments and have their “proficient” or “advanced” scores count in the district’s or school’s calculation for showing adequate yearly progress—the law’s key accountability measure. According to the federal government, those assessments must meet the same technical standards as other tests given by a state under the 4½-year-old law.

In letters the Education Department sent early in the summer, 37 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia were asked to submit more documentation in support of their alternate assessments. They were asked to show, for instance, that those assessments are aligned to state academic-content standards, that the scoring of such tests would produce similar results among students with similar skill levels, and that there are well-developed performance “descriptors” that explain what skills a student must have to be scored at various levels, such as basic, proficient, or advanced.

Difficulties Foreseen

Testing experts say it’s no surprise that states are struggling with their tests for students with the many disorders and injuries that may result in significant cognitive impairments. The field is still in its infancy, they note.

First mandated with the 1997 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, alternate assessments were, in some states, tied to the individualized education program, or IEP, of the particular student. The fact that such students were being tested at all was considered more important than the quality of the tests, and the tests were not included in accountability measures.

The No Child Left Behind law changed that, by requiring that all tests be included in accountability determinations and meet high technical standards. In December 2003, the Education Department issued regulations on the technical qualities such tests must meet in order for the results to count under the federal law.

Several department-funded efforts to help states improve their alternate tests are under way, but “the states are kind of leading the researchers right now,” said Rachel Quenemoen, a senior research fellow at the federally financed National Center on Educational Outcomes, based at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.

“Most states don’t do their general assessments as well as they would like, and we’ve been doing general assessments for a hundred years,” said Scott Marion, the associate director of the Center for Assessment, a Dover, N.H.-based group that works with states to improve their accountability systems. “We knew that states were going to struggle with this, but we think it’s important.”

The states all were informed over the summer of the results of the federal reviews of their testing systems in general, of which alternate assessments are only one part. The evaluations were based in part on the recommendations of teams of standards and testing experts, called peer reviewers.

The Education Department notified 10 states that it intends to withhold a portion of their state administrative funds under the No Child Left Behind law for failing to comply fully with the general testing provisions of the law by the end of the 2005-06 school year. Those funds would instead be sent directly to school districts.

Twenty-five other states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, could also have a portion of their aid withheld if they don’t fix their testing systems by the end of the 2006-07 school year.

Saying that a valid assessment system is a “linchpin” of the No Child Left Behind law, the Education Department plans to offer several opportunities for states to have their assessment programs reviewed again, said a Sept. 19 letter to chief state school officers from Henry L. Johnson, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.

Great Expectations

The peer-review process for the alternate assessments offered its own difficulties, said William D. Schafer, a professor emeritus at the University of Maryland College Park, who was a federal peer reviewer and helped devise Maryland’s alternate assessments.

“You have a certain lack of standardization,” Mr. Schafer said. “Not all kids are presented with the same tasks. Therefore, without standardization, you can’t use some of the typical tools in order to evaluate technical adequacy.”

But, on the positive side, many educators say that students who were once considered to have dim prospects for academic progress are proving that, with the right instruction, they can learn at higher-than-expected levels.

“This group of kids can achieve in academic ways that we never believed possible,” Ms. Quenemoen said.

The alternate assessments have also prompted a major shift in how teachers of students with significant cognitive disabilities teach them, said Elizabeth Bermensolo Compton, a regional consultant to the Idaho Department of Education. She helped develop that state’s alternate assessments.

Idaho’s tests rely on teachers to observe students over four to eight weeks and to measure each student’s skill level under a standard scoring guide.

“Teachers have to know about their particular assessment, and from that be able to look at their instruction in the classroom,” Ms. Compton said.

Misty Kimbrough, the assistant state supervisor for special education services for the Oklahoma Department of Education, said the tests also help teachers communicate with parents in a new and deeper way. Oklahoma’s testing system was one of four that the federal Education Department gave its full approval.

Before the tests, “you struggled with how to report the successes a child had, and there were successes,” Ms. Kimbrough said. “This opens the doors of communication.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 11, 2006 edition of Education Week as Alternate Assessments Proving to Be a Challenge for States

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