Special Education

Final Rules Offer Greater Testing Flexibility

By Christina A. Samuels — April 10, 2007 4 min read

The Department of Education released final regulations last week to guide the creation of tests for students in special education who are capable of learning grade-level content, but not as quickly as their peers.

The only options now available for such students are to take the general assessments given to all students, which may be too difficult, or tests intended for students with significant cognitive impairments, which are too easy. The new tests will allow a more accurate assessment of what this middle group of students knows and how best to teach them, Deputy Secretary of Education Raymond J. Simon said.

With such tests, some schools and districts that previously had not made adequate yearly progress under the No Child Left Behind Act might do so. Under the regulations, states and districts can count the proficient and advanced scores of students who take “alternate assessments based on modified achievement standards” for the purposes of determining AYP under the law, as long as those tests don’t exceed 2 percent of all students assessed. Two percent of all students equals about 20 percent of students with disabilities. The Education Department also allows up to 1 percent of all students in a state—equivalent to 10 percent of students with disabilities—to take a different type of alternate assessment and be counted as proficient for purposes of AYP. Those tests, which are the ones used with students with significant cognitive impairments, are less complex and comprehensive.

Federal regulations on assessments for students with disabilities are posted by the U.S. Department of Education. (Requires Microsoft Word) Also, view more information on the new regulations, including a fact sheet.

The 2 percent testing flexibility was first announced in April 2005, with draft regulations released in December 2005. In the meantime, states have been allowed to use a mathematical model to adjust their scores as if the policy were already in place. That flexibility will be allowed for AYP calculations for the 2006-07 school year, but after this school year, if states want to continue using the model, they have to enter into a partnership with the Education Department to develop the “2 percent” tests, Mr. Simon said.

“We believe a state that has not done anything so far should be able to do what we ask them to do over the next two school years,” Mr. Simon said during an April 4 teleconference with reporters. “Only those who participate with us in a meaningful way” can use the mathematical model, he said.

Content Important

The final regulations, like the draft version, also make clear that out-of-level assessments would not be appropriate for students in special education. So, a 6th grader who reads at a 3rd grade level would not be allowed to take a test intended for younger students.

“The reason we’re taking that position here is we’re really trying to emphasize the importance of students’ getting access to grade-level content,” said Kerri L. Briggs, the acting assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy at the Education Department.

However, the tests can still be easier than the tests given to the general student population, while reflecting grade-level content. Examples of changes in the tests include offering three choices on a multiple-choice test, instead of four; using math manipulatives to illustrate test answers; and allowing students to receive test questions in spoken words or pictures, in addition to print.

Some states already have begun offering such assessments, Mr. Simon said. Though those tests haven’t gone through the department’s peer-review process, he said they could be used as a starting point for other states as they consider their own tests.

The department plans to launch an effort to help states as they create the tests, including $21.1 million in grant money for technical assistance, a meeting with the states scheduled for July, and monthly teleconferences.

Many organizations were taking time to digest the final regulations. The Council for Exceptional Children, an Arlington, Va.-based association for educators of students with disabilities, offered “cautious approval” of the regulations in a press release.

“While the modified academic-achievement standards are a step in the right direction, CEC believes we have not yet reached our goals for providing appropriate assessments for students with disabilities, and including those scores in the accountability system,” said the group’s statement.

The organization said it supports the regulatory provisions that give states two years to develop the tests, provide federal money to help states with test development, and allow students with disabilities to take the tests more than once, with their highest scores counting for AYP purposes.

Ricki Sabia, the associate director of the national-policy center for the National Down Syndrome Society in New York said that the regulations offer some needed safeguards. For instance, she believes the rules make it clear that access to the alternate tests is decided one subject at a time. So, a student who needs an alternate assessment based on modified standards in mathematics could possibly take a general assessment in another subject.

But the regulations don’t offer guidance on how to identify students who need such alternatives, a shortcoming that Ms. Sabia believes could lead to overidentification of students for the tests.

“It’s still not clear who these kids are,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the April 11, 2007 edition of Education Week as Final Rules Offer Greater Testing Flexibility

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