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State-Wide Assessment Programs
Research Connections
Spring 1998

Emerging Approaches

Promising Approaches: Accommodations
Promising Approaches: Alternative Assessments
Promising Approaches: Reporting Results

NCEO publishes research syntheses and reports, most for a fee. Check out their website: http://education.umn.edu/NCEO/. Relevant titles include
  • Self-Study Guide for the Development of Statewide Assessments that Include Students with Disabilities
  • Issues and Considerations in Alternate Assessments
  • Increasing the Participation of Students with Disabilities in State and District Assessments
  • Providing Assessment Accommodations
  • Reporting Educational Results for Students with Disabilities

NCEO offers the following recommendations for developing alternate assessment systems:

  • Define the purpose of the alternate assessment system and who qualifies to participate in it.
  • Identify the common core of learning (i.e., what students need to know and be able to do) for the alternate assessment.
  • Develop participation guidelines for the alternate assessment system.
  • Determine how results will be aggregated.
  • Integrate results with results from the general assessment.

"Special educators definitely need more technical knowledge, but administrators, general educators, and parents also need support in understanding the purpose of accommodations."
--Ann Finzel
Resource Room Teacher
Eugene, Oregon

"Accommodations should only be permitted if they affect the scores of special education students more than they do the scores of general education students."
--Lynn Fuchs
Vanderbilt Universitsy

Assessing literacy development in children with severe speech and physical impairments (SSPI) presents a great challenge. All current assessment instruments and procedures require children to speak at length, write at length, complete answer sheets for large numbers of items, or respond within strict time limits-all of which might be beyond the abilities of children with SSPI.

With OSEP funding, David Koppenhaver has been developing a valid and reliable assessment battery that measures test reading and listening comprehension in children with SSPI. You can contact him at the Center for Literacy and Disability Studies, Duke University Medical Center, Box 3888, Durham, NC 27710.

NCEO Suggestions to Guide Reporting Practices

  • Include data from all test takers in reports.
  • Include rates of exclusion that are specific to students with disabilities and the reasons for the exclusion.
  • Calculate participation or exclusion rates using consistent written guidelines for the rates.
  • Maintain records in such a way that data for students with disabilities can be reported separately, overall, or by other breakdowns.
  • Keep records of the use of accommodations according to the type of accommodation.
  • Inform parents about the reporting policy for their child's data.
  • Report academic performance of students with disabilities with the same regularity as is done for nondisabled students.

"Including students with disabilities in the development and implementation of assessments is a vital step towards providing access to the general curriculum and to learning challenging standards."
-- Judy Heumann
Assistant Secretary
U.S. Department of Education

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Over the last decade, researchers-many with OSEP funding-have investigated how students with disabilities can be included in large-scale assessments that reflect standards-based reform efforts at both state and local levels.

One of the most comprehensive efforts has been the work done at the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO). Established in 1990 with funding from OSEP, the major research focus for NCEO has been on how to increase participation of students with disabilities in large-scale assessments.

In a 1995 study, NCEO found great variability in the rate at which students with disabilities participate in assessments. In fact, few states-with the exception of Kentucky and Maryland-currently have fully inclusive participation policies in place. "It is not a question of who participates, it should be a question of how, and that question should be decided by people closest to the individual student," explains NCEO Associate Director, Martha Thurlow. NCEO estimates that about 85% of the students eligible for special education services could take large-scale assessments with or without accommodations, and the remainder might need an alternate assessment.

What do we know about the issues related to accommodations, alternate assessments, and reporting of results? Promising research that is emerging in each of these areas follows.

Promising Approaches: Accommodations

Many states allow for special testing conditions and accommodations. An accommodation is provided because of a student need, not to give a student an advantage. Used appropriately, accommodations should improve the validity of scores by removing the distortions or biases caused by disabilities. NCEO categorizes the most common assessment accommodations as related to

  • Timing or scheduling.
  • Assessment setting.
  • Response format.
  • Presentation format.
Proper use of accommodations has become a major concern. According to Thurlow, important questions focus on: Who gets assessment accommodations? How are they implemented? Who implements them?

One problem is that accommodation policies tend to vary from district to district and from state to state, making it virtually impossible to compare student performance. Moreover, there is great variation in use of accommodations across disability groups. For example, accommodations for students with physical or sensory disabilities are routinely approved, whereas the same is not true for students with cognitive or behavioral difficulties.

Special education researchers have been pursuing answers to issues surrounding use of appropriate accommodations. Following are several descriptions of how researchers are furthering our understanding.

Ensuring Access to Test Demands

"Accommodations are certainly not just about raising test scores for students with disabilities, or simply leveling the playing field; rather, accommodations are fundamentally about how to validly measure what students know and are able to do," points out University of Oregon professor, Gerald Tindal. According to Tindal, educators should consider the learner's needs, the task demands, and the purpose of the particular accommodation. "It would be ideal if teachers could turn to the research and find a list of preferred and best practices in testing students with disabilities." That goal underlies much of Tindal's current research.

With OSEP funding, Tindal has been studying the way in which large-scale tests are administered. In one study, Tindal and his colleagues found that reading the mathematics test aloud had a positive effect for students with disabilities. According to Tindal, "Most tests place considerable reading demands on students-not only do they have to read the directions, but they must also read the individual problems and make choices," explains Tindal. "When a student performs poorly on a math test that requires considerable reading, is the skill deficit one of math or reading or both?"

Tindal stresses that "a sound decision-making process must be in place that encourages the application of research-based special education practices." Curriculum-based measurement, much of it created with OSEP funding, is an example of an excellent starting point.

Tindal has been working with practitioners in Oregon to embed curriculum-based measurement into the IEP process and relate performance to that attained on large-scale assessments. Bend School District, which serves 50,000 students in a rural community, is one example. With the support of special education supervisor, Jan Brigham, a pilot group of teachers began considering standards for their students in mathematics and reading. "Our goal was to make assessment the basis for the IEP." Brigham describes the process. "We identified standards and benchmarks, determined the appropriate assessment, and wrote these into the students' IEPs." Through this process, which Brigham cautions must be approached long-term, teachers began to think differently about the IEP. "As we defined standards and sought ways to put them into practice, we began to write IEPs to reflect levels of mastery-which challenged us to learn more about how to assess children."

Developing Accommodations for Complex Performance Tasks

The need for information about acceptable testing accommodations led Stephen Elliott, researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, to develop the Assessment Accommodation Checklist (AAC). Work on the AAC grew out of several OSEP-funded projects, one of which studied how students with mild disabilities reacted to on-demand performance assessment tasks in mathematics and language arts.

"We needed a way to organize and record information on testing accommodations provided by teachers," describes Elliott. "The AAC can be used by teachers as a springboard for ideas, in addition to serving as a recording device." Prior to using the AAC, Elliott recommends that the IEP team discuss participation and accommodations.

The checklist presently contains 74 accommodations that are organized into eight domains:

  • Motivation.
  • Assistance prior to administering assessment.
  • Scheduling.
  • Setting.
  • Directions.
  • Assistance during the assessment.
  • Aids, equipment, or adaptive technology.
  • Changes in test format.
Using the AAC, educators rate the extent to which they think that a particular accommodation will help the student best demonstrate his or her ability. After the child has taken the test, accommodations are then rated according to whether or not they were helpful and fair.

Reducing Variability in Accommodation Practices

"In many accountability systems, the performance of students with disabilities does not count, in part because no widely agreed upon methods exist for determining fair, valid accommodations," points out Lynn Fuchs, Professor of Special Education at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. As a result, there is wide variability in accommodation policies, making comparisons between states or districts unfair.

With research funding from OSEP, Fuchs wants to remedy this situation. "Schools need standardized methods for determining which accommodations are valid for which students." To do this, she is developing, validating, and codifying the Dynamic Assessment Tool for Accommodations (DATA), which will be available at the completion of the project.

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Promising Approaches: Alternate Assessments

Alternate assessments are one approach to including students with severe disabilities fairly and meaningfully in large-scale assessments. While still in their infancy, alternate assessments offer promise for ensuring that all students are included fully in the accountability process.

One example is Kentucky's Alternate Portfolio Assessment (KAPA). With funding from OSEP, University of Kentucky Professor Harold Kleinert launched the development process. "The key is to relate the alternate assessment to core learning outcomes for the students," Kleinert asserts. In Kentucky, examples of learning outcomes include the abilities to communicate effectively, use quantitative or numerical concepts in real life problems, and effectively use interpersonal skills.

The KAPA allows students to communicate in alternate ways. Here's an example of what entries might look like:

  • Fourth grade: Using appropriate pictures from his communication board, a student showed how he learned to use the school library. Peer support was documented, as were specific adaptations developed by the teacher. The student also included a checklist, where he checked off each step in checking out a book.
  • Twelfth grade: In preparing for a school dance, a student and her nondisabled peers planned what they would wear. The student included budget planning sheets, checklists, pictures, receipts, and mementos.
Implementing such an assessment system requires extensive professional development, including basic training in incorporating the portfolio assessment process into daily classroom routines, trainer-of-trainers training, and training in scoring the portfolios. However, as Sarah Kennedy, the state-wide coordinator of the KAPA, points out, "Because the KAPA is based on best practice, practitioners have a great interest in being trained."

Amy Longwell, special education teacher at Danville High School, agrees that the KAPA training is well worth the effort. "The KAPA has improved my teaching because it continually reinforces best practice." Longwell embedded the KAPA system into her peer tutoring program-a best practice that has increasingly been recommended for developing the social interaction skills, genuine friendships, and support networks for students with disabilities. For more information about Longwell's classroom approach, see her article in an upcoming issue of TEACHING Exceptional Children.

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Promising Approaches: Reporting Results

Reporting information on students with disabilities is important because it ensures that they are represented in the accountability system. In general, there is great variability in reporting practices from district to district and state to state, making comparisons difficult. Complicating this issue is the concern that when special education students are included in large-scale assessments, results might not be comparable to those of other students because of the special testing circumstances. "Ideally, the scores of students receiving accommodations would be aggregated with the scores of all other students," asserts NCEO's Thurlow. "It is important to remember that the problem of score incomparability was not caused by students with disabilities, but by exclusionary development assessment practices that presume the achievement of students with disabilities is not important."

School districts are seeking ways to report the progress of all students in meaningful ways. According to Judy Poulson, assistant director of special education for the Aurora, Colorado, School District, "Few dispute the need for accountability for all students-but building principals are concerned, and rightfully so, that aggregated scores will be misinterpreted by the public as a failure."

The Long Beach, California, Unified School District offers an example of how educators are approaching the reporting issue. Two years ago the district decided to include all of their 5,000 special education students in large-scale assessments. "There are a variety of ways to include children," reports Lynn Winters, Assistant Superintendent for Research, Planning, and Evaluation in Long Beach Unified School District. "For some people, the problem is not so much how to test all children, but how to report the results in a way that makes sense."

With consultation from staff at NCEO, Long Beach educators set out to tie large-scale assessments directly to school effectiveness policies that advocate for students reaching high performance standards. In response to the need for accurate information, Winters points out that the district decided to issue two separate assessment reports: one that is generated for everyone taking the standard assessment, and a separate one for the approximately 300 students with severe disabilities who participate in the district's alternate assessment. Schools are held accountable for both sets of scores, and any missing data lowers the total school scores. Information is also kept regarding accommodations used by students.

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The 1997 Reauthorization of IDEA highlights the importance of including students with disabilities in all educational reform activities and, in particular, in state-wide assessment systems. Special education researchers, and the practitioners who are pioneering efforts to prepare students to take part in and succeed in large-scale assessments, are ensuring that this mandate is implemented in the best interest of the students, their families, and the educators who assist them.

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