Special Education

Alternate-Test Rules Ripe for Revision in Next ESEA

March 08, 2011 6 min read
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When the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is finally renewed, advocates and policymakers say, it is likely to leave out provisions that allow schools and districts to use some scores from students with disabilities using alternate exams for federal accountability purposes.

And it appears that few people will be sorry to see the option go.

Renewal proposals for the ESEA, the current version of which is the No Child Left Behind Act, are still being discussed by congressional lawmakers and staff. Capitol Hill aides and U.S. Department of Education officials have suggested that a current federal regulation governing alternate testing for students with disabilities won’t be a part of the law going forward.

The so-called “2 percent rule” allows schools to give some students with disabilities exams that are different from those for general education students and based on modified achievement standards. The tests aren’t based on easier, less challenging content, but they are intended to allow students to demonstrate mastery of that content in less depth and with some built-in accommodations that enable them to better show what they know.

For example, multiple-choice questions may have three choices instead of four. If the point of a question is to test whether students know how to use a particular equation, they may be given the equation, rather than having to remember it, too.

Schools and districts can use scores from these tests that are considered proficient or better when calculating adequate yearly progress under NCLB law, as long as the number of scores they include doesn’t exceed 2 percent of all students in the grades that were given tests.

Questions about how students are being identified for the exam and concerns that some schools have assumed that students with disabilities who scored low on general assessments could never master grade-level content are driving the move to do away with the 2 percent clause.

‘A Bad Band-Aid’

Indeed, these retrofitted versions of standardized, general assessments, which were never designed to be used in an alternate format, aren’t quite right for students with disabilities, said Bruce Hunter, an associate executive director for advocacy, policy, and communications for the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va.

“It’s a bad Band-Aid on a weak test. Even the U.S. Department of Education has recognized you need better assessments,” he said. He noted that two groups of experts are working on a new generation of assessments for the common standards, and that they are being developed in a flexible format that can easily be adjusted for students with different learning styles. “They should have eliminated [the 2 percent rule] years ago,” he said.

2% Rule Explained

Regulations from the U.S. Department of Education allow states to give an alternate assessment to some students with disabilities to track student achievement under the No Child Left Behind law. These assessments must cover the same grade-level content as general assessments, but the expectations of content mastery are modified rather than the content standards themselves.

Some examples:

ASSESSMENT: Alternate assessments may contain test items that are less complex than the assessments for general education students. There could be fewer reading passages on the reading assessment. There could be three choices on multiple-choice sections of the exam instead of four. Students could be given an equation needed to solve a problem instead of being required to remember it in order to answer a question.

AYP: When measuring adequate yearly progress, states and school districts have the flexibility to count the “proficient” and “advanced” scores of some students who take alternate assessments based on such modified academic-achievement standards. They can do so as long as the number of those proficient and advanced scores does not exceed 2 percent of all students in the grades assessed—or about 20 percent of students with disabilities—at the district and state levels. That’s where this rule gets its name. The 2 percent cap is to ensure that the alternate assessments are used appropriately. In some cases, states and school districts can exceed the 2 percent cap.

SUBGROUP REPORTS: The 2 percent rule is in addition to the 1 percent rule, which is used to assess the progress of the subgroup of students with disabilities. It says states and school districts can count the proficient and advanced scores of up to 1 percent of students with disabilities who take alternate assessments based on alternate academic standards.—N.S.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education

Another exception that allows schools and districts to use alternate assessments for a smaller percentage of students with severe cognitive disabilities—tests that are based on an entirely separate set of standards—is likely to survive the next iteration of the law. The Education Department has awarded a separate grant to develop a new generation of these assessments. But in the next version of ESEA, lawmakers want to be sure that schools are more discerning about using these exams.They argue that if a child with severe cognitive disabilities needs the alternate assessment for one subject, schools shouldn’t automatically use an alternate test for a subject in which the child could take the general assessment.

Over time, the scope of the 2 percent rule has been limited to allow only states that have alternate exams approved by the federal government to use them for adequate yearly progress purposes.

Before that change was made in the 2009-10 school year, an Education Department analysis shows, when states could use an exam of their choice, having that exception was critical for many schools to make adequate yearly progress. For example, 159 schools in California made AYP during the 2005-06 school year because of the 2 percent rule, the analysis found.

Even though fewer states are using the exception now, it’s still an escape hatch for some schools, Mr. Hunter said. “Absent the 2 percent rule, a whole bunch more of them would miss AYP,” he said.

Adding It Up

While 2 percent may sound small, it represents as many as 20 percent of students with disabilities. Coupled with the provision that allows schools to count some proficient and advanced scores from alternate exams for students with severe cognitive disabilities—a rule that can apply to up to 1 percent up of all students in the tested grades—the scores of up to 30 percent of special education students from alternate exams could figure into accountability calculations in a given school, district or state.

The proposal to dump the 2 percent rule has been embraced by many advocates of students with disabilities, some of whom say the rule has been applied in an uneven, haphazard way.

“The guidance the [Department of Education] provides is very, very broad,” said Kim S. Hymes, the director of policy and advocacy for the Council for Exceptional Children. “As a result, schools and districts and states ... have written their own regulations and policies.”

And while schools and districts may count only 2 percent of scores from alternate assessments based on modified standards for adequate yearly progress purposes, there’s no telling how many students have been funneled into alternate tests, she said.

“We know some states such as Oklahoma, combined with their 1 percent [assessments], are giving 60 percent of the students with disabilities either the 1- or 2-percent exam,” said Laura W. Kaloi, public policy director at the National Center for Learning Disabilities in New York. “It’s an atrocity.”

In addition, she said, “there’s been no study and no discussion about what the implications are on this modified assessment—what does it mean for their [students’] pathway to the regular diploma?”

Next-Generation Tests

Like Mr. Hunter, Ms. Hymes and Ms. Kaloi are putting their faith in the exams emerging from the common core standards, as is the Education Department.

“You can already see where we’re going,” said Alexa Posny, the assistant secretary for the federal office of special education and rehabilitative services, noting that both groups working on the new assessments have included special education experts. Her office has also provided grants to develop new exams for students with significant cognitive disabilities, but not for the larger group of students with disabilities.

She thinks the new assessments will do a far better job of accurately measuring all students with disabilities’ grasp of content.

Though the 2 percent rule allows districts and schools flexibility—and a better chance of making adequate yearly progress—even some who once supported keeping the policy said they now accept its almost-certain demise.

“The 2 percent is going away—that’s the reality,” said Nancy Reder, the deputy executive director for governmental relations for the National Association of State Directors of Special Education in Alexandria, Va.

“Our members would be comfortable with these new assessments,” she said. “If [the new assessments] work the way I hope they will work, there will be less attempts at gaming the system.”

But not everyone is convinced.

“We’d still like that flexibility,” said Christina A. Lebo, policy and legislation chair for the Council of Administrators of Special Education. “We don’t ever want to go back to not having high expectations for our students, but [flexibility] is appropriate for that special group of students.”

Nirvi Shah, Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the March 09, 2011 edition of Education Week as Overhaul of ESEA Could Drop Option of Alternate Exams


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