Special Report
Special Education

Alternative-Assessment Groups Pursue Divergent Pathways

By Liana Loewus — April 21, 2014 4 min read

When policymakers and educators discuss testing pegged to the common core, the central reference point tends to be the work of the two state consortia that are developing assessments for most students: the Smarter Balanced group and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC.

At the same time, two lesser-known organizations—also federally funded—are working on alternate assessments for students with severe cognitive disabilities, who make up approximately 1 percent of the testing population.

What’s especially striking about this alternate-assessment enterprise is that the pair are not just administering tests differently—they’re working under completely different theories of learning. One, Dynamic Learning Maps, emphasizes multiple pathways for building any one skill and will test students during instruction. The other, the National Center and State Collaborative, focuses on the “big ideas” from the grade-level common-core content and evaluates students summatively.

Based at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Dynamic Learning Maps has devised its tests around the idea that it’s possible to create an optimal map, or web, showing the many complex, interconnected ways students learn.

“We refer to it as the Human Genome Project of education,” said Neal Kingston, the project director for the DLM. Unlike most adaptive tests, which are based on item difficulty, the DLM will emphasize the “pathway” by which a specific student learns. “An item can be difficult in a lot of different ways,” said Mr. Kingston. “We’re interested in the underlying skills.”

A Choice for States

Currently, 18 states have signed on to use Dynamic Learning Maps, including Colorado, Vermont, and Washington. Both Alaska and Virginia, which have not adopted the Common Core State Standards, plan to use the DLM as well. The group is writing both summative tests, to be administered at the end of the year, and shorter interim “testlets,” which teachers can use to inform their ongoing instruction.

The interim testing, said Mr. Kingston, “in many ways, it’s like what formative assessment is supposed to be, in that students and teachers are interacting throughout the year.”

The testlets range from three to five items and should take between three and 30 minutes, he said.

“Some states would like all accountability decisions to be based on summative tests, and some would like [them] to be based on information gathered throughout the year,” said Mr. Kingston. “We’re trying to come out with a system that offers a choice for states.”

The National Center and State Collaborative, led by the National Center on Educational Outcomes, out of the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, on the other hand, adheres to a more traditional learning progression, seeing skill-building as more linear, and aims to assess students’ progress—however incremental—on grade-level content aligned with the common core. Twenty-two states, including Arizona and Tennessee, as well as the District of Columbia, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and other places such as Guam, plan to administer the NCSC assessments.

See Also

Read related story, “Testing Plans Differ on Accommodations.”

“We’ve known for a long time that students benefit greatly from age-appropriate content,” said Rachel Quenemoen, a senior research fellow for the National Center on Educational Outcomes, and the project director for the NCSC. Students with severe disabilities “are interested in the same concepts and activities as their grade-level peers are; they just access them differently.”

Many of the common-core standards are written broadly, encompassing a variety of skills and understandings. “We give the Common Core State Standards a haircut,” said Ms. Quenemoen. “We try to stick with the language of the common core and stick with the implications, but we may break it into pieces and show teachers how the pieces interact.”

The test format will be simple, at least for field-testing, which is going on this spring. Students will receive 30 items each for English/language arts and math, and the items will not adapt for difficulty.

“Other consortia have a few more bells and whistles,” said Ms. Quenemoen. “We’re not going to be doing amazing things with items, we are going to have a really nice strong technology delivery system that should be accessible to all our kids. Access is our focus.”

Like prior alternate exams, the NCSC tests will be administered in a one-on-one setting. The NCSC will offer teachers progress-monitoring tools to use throughout the year to inform instruction. But only the summative score will be available for accountability purposes.

‘Lessons to be Learned’

Despite the groups’ differences, “All kinds of really positive things are happening on the alternate assessments because they’re only focused on those students,” said Laura W. Kaloi, the vice president of policy and development at Washington Partners, a Washington-based consulting firm, and an advocate for students with learning disabilities.

Trinell M. Bowman, a program manager for the Maryland education department and the chairwoman of a PARCC working group, said her state’s decision to join the NCSC consortium was based on feedback from educators and the community. Among other things, stakeholders were familiar with the researchers who worked on the NCSC and teachers wanted an assessment with a condensed testing window.

“When we made the decisions [in January 2013], there were still a lot of unknowns about the assessment systems in terms of design,” she said. “There’s still a lot of lessons to be learned and research to be conducted.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 23, 2014 edition of Education Week as Alternate-Assessment Groups Pursue Divergent Pathways


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