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Special education: Testing and assessment

IDEA requires that students with disabilities take most state and district tests. The law also requires that local schools make accommodations for students with disabilities so that they can demonstrate their skills and knowledge, in recognition of their specific disabilities.

For example, a teacher might read a math test to a student who can’t see well and help them write down their answers. Other students might need extra equipment like a calculator, or frequent breaks during an exam. States typically decide what accommodations might be available for a general assessment and allow educators to decide how students with disabilities will participate. Any accommodations provided to a student on an exam must be listed as part of the student’s individualized education plan (IEP).

The challenge—and much of the controversy—of the practice focuses on how much an exam can be adjusted for student needs. If an exam has a significant number of modifications, or is modified too little, it may no longer be a valid, reliable measure of student performance.

In some cases, students are unable to participate on a general assessment even with accommodations. In this situation, students might be tested on an alternative assessment. The student’s IEP team decides whether a student should take an alternative assessment, and the exams can take many different forms, from a portfolio to an oral exam. These alternative assessments are typically given to students with severe cognitive disabilities.

Whatever test disabled students take, states are required to release detailed reports on state assessment types, the number of disabled students participating, and their performance. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs has collected the data and publishes the results annually. Some states also report some of this data on their web sites.

The federal government also requires schools to assess special education students. Under NCLB, schools must test at least 95 percent of all students, including those students with disabilities, and include their scores in school and district ratings and report cards. States must also provide the test results of students with disabilities and show the percent tested. The goal of the current law is to have all students—including students with disabilities—performing at the proficient level by 2014. Schools that do not make “adequate yearly progress” face sanctions and could be eventually forced to close.

States have some flexibility in how they assess students with disabilities. They may be tested in one of these five ways:

  • Through the regular state assessment
  • Through the regular state assessment, but with accommodations
  • Through an alternate assessment based on grade-level standards
  • Through an alternate assessment based on a modified achievement standard. (While the alternate assessments must be aligned with grade level content standards, their achievement standards may differ in breadth or depth from the achievement standards for general education students. Only 2 percent of the students who score proficient or above on these tests may count toward a school’s AYP.)
  • Alternate assessment based on alternate achievement standard (Only 1 percent of students who score proficient or above on these tests may count toward a school’s AYP.)

This has not always been the case. When NCLB was first signed into law in 2002, states could:

  • Administer the regular state assessment
  • Administer the regular state assessment with accommodations
  • Administer an alternate assessment aligned to grade-level standards, or
  • Administer an alternate assessment aligned to modified achievement standards. (This was only for students who had severe cognitive disabilities. Only 1 percent of students who scored proficient or above on alternate assessments could count toward a school’s AYP.)

Many believed that this did not give states enough flexibility, and in May 2007, new regulations that allowed for more options became final. The new provision was aimed at students with disabilities who have persistent academic difficulties, but still could be expected to meet modified achievement standards. In these regulations, states could develop alternate assessments based on modified academic achievement standards, and 2 percent of students scoring proficient or above could count toward AYP.


This piece is based on the full examination of special education prepared for the Center for Public Education by Ulrich Boser, a freelance writer and a contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report. His work has appeared in SmithsonianSlate, and the Washington Post.

Posted: October 15, 2009

©2009 Center for Public Education

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