Most students with disabilities took state reading tests during the 2003-04 school year, but states are struggling to create and give alternate assessments that measure grade-level and below grade-level standards for at least some special education youngsters, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
State education officials told the congressional watchdog agency that the alternate tests, required under the 1997 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to be in place by 2000, were still fairly new, and that training teachers to use and administer such exams took a long time.
In a report released July 20, the GAO singles out Oregon for its innovative approach to state exams. For example, the state permits all students, with or without disabilities, to use certain accommodations when taking state reading tests.
But while Oregon may be further along than most states, it has taken time and effort to get there, said Nancy J. Latini, the assistant superintendent for the state office of student learning and partnerships, which oversees special education. Ms. Latini helped the GAO with the report.
“We have spent at least the last four years in training across the state, training people in how to administer the tests, teaching people how to pick the right tests for kids,” she said, referring to the state’s alternate exams. “We’ll continue that this year.”
The GAO wrote the report, addressed to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, in response to questions about the extent to which states have included students with disabilities in their testing systems, and whether those exams accurately reflect student performance.
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The report focuses on the percent of students with disabilities who participated in state reading tests in 2003-04 because complete data were not available for state mathematics tests or for the 2004-05 school year.
Of the 48 states and the District of Columbia that provided usable information, 41 states reported that at least 95 percent of students with disabilities took state reading tests, with most taking the regular state exams. Relatively few special education youngsters took alternate state tests. The remaining states and the District of Columbia had lower participation rates.
Barriers to Use
The GAO probed why alternate assessments aren’t used more.
“State officials reported that providing alternate assessments was challenging, particularly because of the time and expertise required to design such assessments and the training necessary for teachers to implement them,” the report says. State officials estimated that teachers need two to three years of training to administer alternate tests properly.
State officials asked for models of alternate tests that measure grade-level standards. The report recommends that the U.S. Department of Education make information on model exams more easily available on its Web site and work with states that excluded a high percentage of students with disabilities from their tests.
“We’re really charting a new path here,” said Martha L. Thurlow, the director of the National Center on Educational Outcomes, a federally financed center, based at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Questions about how to devise good tests for students with disabilities are helping improve tests for all youngsters, she said.
A version of this article appeared in the August 10, 2005 edition of Education Week as Most Students With Disabilities Take State Exams