Special Education

Alternative Tests Aligned With Common Core Find Niche in Special Ed.

By Christina A. Samuels — April 26, 2016 6 min read
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While intense political pressure has prompted several states to move away from shared tests aligned to the Common Core State Standards, a set of aligned assessments for students with severe cognitive disabilities has managed to maintain support.

For the current school year, 2015-16, 27 states and the District of Columbia plan to administer alternate assessments that were developed by Dynamic Learning Maps or by the National Center and State Collaborative, two federally funded consortia. An additional state, Alaska, had planned to offer a consortium-designed alternate assessment this spring, but dropped out because of technical problems.

In contrast, only 21 states plan this school year to use tests that were developed by either the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) or Smarter Balanced, the two prominent separate consortia that spearheaded development of common-core tests for general use.

Federal Funding

Dynamic Learning Maps and the NCSC received $67 million in federal funds to create assessments of college- and career-ready standards for a tiny portion of an already-small group: students with disabilities who are not expected to master grade-level material. (In comparison, PARCC and Smarter Balanced received $360 million.)

No more than about 1 percent of all students—equivalent to about 10 percent of all students with disabilities—are expected to be eligible to take the alternate assessments. Other students with disabilities are believed to be able to master grade-level academics with the proper instruction and support, and so would take whatever general assessment a state offers.

Students with severe cognitive disabilities, however, are still expected to have appropriate access to grade-level content. That philosophy has been further enshrined in the Every Student Succeeds Act, the new federal K-12 law, and alternate assessments received even more attention as a rulemaking committee recently wrestled over how to turn ESSA’s mandates into policy.

Avoiding the Firestorm

That the alternate tests are meant for such a small group of students has helped keep them out of the crosshairs of political and advocacy groups that are against the common core in general.

The leaders of the two alternate-testing consortia, which are now either winding down or have ended the federally funded portion of their projects, say they also benefited by

understanding that creating better tests was only a part of their focus.

Equally, if not more important, was introducing academic rigor to students who once were believed to be capable of mastering only the most basic skills. That meant developing extensive professional-development modules and curriculum guides for teachers who are sometimes isolated not only from general education colleagues, but from other special education colleagues as well.

For both of the alternate tests, the instructional elements are tightly woven to the assessments themselves. Model lessons and instructional tools underpin the work of the NCSC. For DLM, all the standards are connected in a learning map. Each stop on the map offers an opportunity for short assessments, or “testlets,” as a natural function of instruction throughout the school year.

“There was a need that these projects seemed to meet,” said Rachel Quenemoen, the project director of the NCSC. The consortium is ending its work in September, and much of its resources have been turned over to a partnership of states. The test will be renamed the Multi-State Alternate Assessment.

While curriculum, instruction, and professional-development resources developed by the NCSC consortium will remain available free of charge, states will also have the ability to license the NCSC testing platform, test items, or both, without having to officially join any consortium.

The licensing agreement is a good option for states “that like to control their own destiny,” Quenemoen said.

Next Phase

The Dynamic Learning Maps project ended its federal grant in fall 2015.

Meagan Karvonen, the project director for DLM, said that part of the consortium’s success has been the extensive cross-states conversations about what academic work is appropriate to stretch students with severe cognitive disabilities.

“There has been tremendous power in working on a vision of what this assessment could be,” she said. At the same time, Karvonen said, she still sees resistance to any tests at all for students in this population. Part of the resistance comes from those who see life-skills training—counting money, riding public transportation—as more important skills to master. Karvonen agrees that those skills are also important. “There is a lot that some of these students need in their educational background,” she said.

But some of the resistance, she said, comes from not realizing the potential to learn more-complex material and benefit from it that some students with severe cognitive disabilities have.

“These students will continue to be overlooked, they will have poorer long-term outcomes when they leave schools” without the work of the consortia, Karvonen said.

Academic Skills

Though the students are not at grade level, most of them have some academic skills. The NCSC consortium asked its member states and found that most alternate-assessment test-takers—56 percent—had intellectual disabilities.

Students with autism made up 22 percent, and those with multiple disabilities represented 9 percent of test-takers. About two-thirds of students taking alternate assessments could read, ranging from basic sight words up to reading fluently with critical understanding. Four in 10 students could perform computational tasks with or without a calculator.

ESSA made some changes to previous testing regulations for students in this population. While NCLB placed restrictions on how many students could be counted as proficient, it had no cap on the percentage of students who could take an alternate assessment. In contrast, the new law implements a 1 percent statewide cap. That cap, however, does not apply to districts. That could lead to a situation where a state exceeds its the cap because some of its districts chose to use alternate assessments on more than 1 percent of their students. States can request a cap waiver from the U.S. Department of Education.

The committee formed to hammer out ESSA policy rules weighed how to manage those potentially conflicting mandates. Ultimately, the committee decided not to create a federal definition of “severe cognitive disability,” as some disability-rights advocates urged, in order to ward off students being wrongly shunted into an alternate academic track.

However, the committee said that states cannot identify a student as having a severe cognitive disability based solely on academic performance or on English-language status. And to get a waiver, the state has to show it has assessed 95 percent of all of its students, including students with disabilities.

The students who take these tests will ultimately benefit from better instruction, said Audra Ahumada, the director of alternate assessment for Arizona. That state is the fiscal manager for the NCSC successor group.

National Center and State Collaborative “put way more emphasis on instruction as being a huge part of developing this assessment,” Ahumada said. “If we develop a test without improving instruction, it doesn’t matter what we develop—we’re going to be too far apart. We have to support teachers.”

And “we’re not finished,” she added. “We have a long way to go, still, but we’re going to get there faster, working together as states.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 27, 2016 edition of Education Week as Alternate Assessments Find Niche in Spec. Ed.

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