Special Education

New Common Core Tests to Shelve “Modified Achievement Standards”

By Christina A. Samuels — September 02, 2010 2 min read
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I’ve been pecking away at an article about the push toward common academic standards and students with disabilities for a little while now, but this tidbit is too interesting to hold on to: Today, Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced the winners of a competition to design tests that will accompany these state standards. In his remarks, he made several direct references to what these new tests may mean for students with learning differences:

This new generation of mathematics and English language arts assessments will cover all students in grades 3 through 8 and be used at least once in high school in every state that chooses to use them. In addition, the [Parternship for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers] consortium will develop optional performance tasks to assess literacy and mathematics knowledge and skills in kindergarten through 2nd grade. All English language learners and students with disabilities will take the new assessments, with the exception of the 1 percent of students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. Unlike existing assessments, which often retrofit mediocre accommodations into tests, the new assessment systems will be designed, from the start, to accurately assess both English learners and students with disabilities and provide appropriate accommodations. And for the 1 percent of students with the most significant disabilities, states will have funds to develop an alternate assessment as a result of a soon-to-be completed competition.

Notably missing from that statement is any reference to alternate assessments based on modified achievement standards, known as “2 percent tests.” That’s because the 2 percent tests shouldn’t be needed any more among the states that choose to shift to the new assessments, the Education department confirmed to me in an interview.

In 2005, then-Education Secretary Margaret Spellings announced a plan to let states create tests for students who don’t have severe cognitive disabilities, but are unable to demonstrate their knowledge on the regular tests.There’s no limit to the number of students who can take such tests, but the hypothesis is that only about 2 percent of all students—about 20 percent of students with disabilities—would need them. Therefore, the department only allows proficient scores from 2 percent of the students taking the modified achievement test to be used for calculating adequate yearly progress.

(As Duncan noted, states are also allowed to use a so-called 1 percent assessment, intended for 1 percent of students with the most severe cognitive disabilities. A separate development competition will be held for that test so that it can be aligned to common academic standards.)

The old tests are expected to remain in place until the new assessments are ready to go. Right now, the plan is to field-test new assessments in 2013-14, and have them ready for the classroom in 2014-15. The federal government is not requiring any state to change to the new tests, but many are expected to make the shift.

There’s no question that one of the most vexing issues in special education is developing tests for students with learning differences. What accommodations can students use? How do you modify test language without changing what the assessment is meant to measure? How can students reading on a 3rd grade level be tested on standards for 6th graders?

The difficulty is illustrated by the fact that only one state thus far, Texas, has been able to create an alternate achievement assessment that meets Education Department muster.

But Duncan, in his speech, indicates he has pretty high hopes:

For the first time, state assessments will make widespread use of smart technology. They will provide students with realistic, complex performance tasks, immediate feedback, computer adaptive testing, and incorporate accommodations for a range of students.... And last but not least, for the first time, the new assessments will better measure the higher-order thinking skills so vital to success in the global economy of the 21st century and the future of American prosperity. To be on track today for college and careers, students need to show that they can analyze and solve complex problems, communicate clearly, synthesize information, apply knowledge, and generalize learning to other settings.

A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.