About half the states require exit tests for students to earn a standard high school diploma, but only a few have alternative assessments for students with disabilities that are as rigorous as the tests required of other students, according to a survey by the National Center on Educational Outcomes.
By having separate standards for students with and without disabilities, the report concludes, states may be giving the impression that students with disabilities aren’t up to grade-level work.
“We believe [alternative assessments] should be based on the same beliefs and premises that the standard test is based on,” Martha Thurlow, the director of the NCEO and one of the report’s authors, said in an interview last week. The NCEO, based at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, promotes the participation of students in national and state tests.
The report, completed in 2003 and released in March, relied on public information about the availability of alternative assessments, both for students with and without disabilities. Of the 24 states studied that have exit-exam requirements, 16 had some type of alternative test available for students to earn a diploma by the end of the 2002-03school year.
Ten states had an alternative route for all students and another testing route for students with disabilities. Three states had an alternative test just for students with disabilities, and another three states had an alternative test for all students only.
When states developed alternative tests that all students could use, 71 percent of such tests were judged to be comparable to the standard exit exam. But for states that developed tests that were intended only for students with disabilities, just 35 percent were comparable to the standard test.
The tests studied for the report differ from the alternative assessments that are available for students who have significant cognitive disabilities. Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, students with such disabilities are allowed to take tests based on lower grade-level standards. The alternative tests the NCEO tracked are intended to be based on the same grade-level expectations that the standard exams use, Ms. Thurlow said.
A Valid Comparison
The researchers intentionally decided to count an alternative exam as “comparable” to the standard test if it was specifically described by the state as so on a Web site or in other public information. Tests were determined not to be comparable if they were described in such terms as “lower,” “waiver” or “exemption.”
“We believed the first line of credibility had to be what was presented to the public—therefore, our insistence on using only the information that was publicly available and had at least face-value validity,” the authors wrote.
Ms. Thurlow said the NCEO did not further check the content of each state’s standard and alternative exams. But the information compiled still raises questions, the report concludes.
“Is it OK in the current context of accountability to essentially waive graduation requirements for students with disabilities in those states that have a graduation exam?” it says.
Deborah A. Ziegler, a spokeswoman for the Council for Exceptional Children, an advocacy group based in Arlington, Va., said she agrees that most students with disabilities should be evaluated on the same standards as their peers who are taking standard exit tests.
“There may be students who need an alternative achievement route,” said Ms. Ziegler. “But there are certainly students with disabilities who we can hold to high achievement standards.”