Standardized Assessments and Students with DisabilitiesBy David Stephens and Jaclyn Long

I. Introduction and Historical Context:

What is a Standardized Assessment?
According to the Bay District Schoolswebsite, Standardized Assessments are tests administered to large groups of students to gather data on student achievement. Standardized assessments follow strict administration procedures to ensure all students given the assessment are tested under the same conditions. Results from standardized assessments are used to measure individual performance of students, schools, and districts, as well as to compare across students, schools, and districts.

What was life like pre-NCLB?
Prior to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), federal provisions concerning assessment accountability practices were limited in scope and ability to regulate the assessment of individuals receiving special education services. Many states did have statewide tests used to measure achievement of individual students, schools, and districts, however states were not required to report test data publicly and there were no regulations concerning who needed to be included in testing procedures. For students with disabilities, achievement was based on goals written in student's Individual Educational Plans (IEPs). There were no consequences associated with test results or failure to meet goals. At this time, IEPs were the only written document of a child's needs and services to be delivered, and therefore served as an accountability tool of following the correct protocol and guidelines set up within the IEP, but did not focus on student achievement (McLaughlin & Thurlow, 2010).

National Council On Disability 1989
In 1989, the National Council on Disability decided that the shift in accountability should take place in the realm of special education. The Council felt that accountability should move beyond mere access to education for students to the quality of education being recieved and student outcomes (McLaughlin & Thurlow, 2010). This was the first step towards the mandates that would later follow with provisions to IDEA and the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which became known as No Child Left Behind.

IDEA 1997 and NCLB 2001
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1997 (IDEA) included mandates requiring all states to include individuals with special needs in all state and federally mandated assessments, however this practice was required of school districts only where they felt the assessments would be most appropriate (Schulte & Villwock, 2004). This discrepancy between mandate and reality typically enabled school districts to exempt students receiving special education services who were unlikely to reach mastery levels of achievement on broad federal and state academic measures. The passage of NCLB in 2001 required school districts to not only include specific subgroups in formal standardized assessments, such as special education students, but to include no less than 95% of a subgroup in the assessment and use their assessment data to track a districts annual yearly progress (AYP) (Schulte & Villwock, 2004). Without reporting at least 95% of a subgroup, school districts will not have met requirements for AYP and risk losing the opportunity for federally distributed resources. NCLB also accommodated school districts to utilize alternate or modified assessment systems for students, where appropriate, and include up to 3% of these students in their AYP findings (Jennings, 2008). The primary aims of NCLB are; help prevent school districts from aggregating achievement data of subgroups, promote marginalized population educational quality and reporting of achievement trends, narrow gaps of achievement between subgroups and use disaggregated achievement data to support better-targeted instruction and intervention (Jennings, 2008). These new regulations have dramatically shifted achievement measurement for students receiving special education services.

Assessment and Accountability Mandates Through the Years


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II. Proponents Perspective:

The influence of NCLB and shift in accountability practices has raised different perspectives on whether the use of certain assessments for all populations regardless of ability are appropriate. The use of standardized assessments with concrete achievement level requirements, proponents argue:
  • Ensure school districts are responsible for all students and not just the highest achievers
  • Ensure standards for equal measures of accountability are set
  • Enable state-by-state student comparisons
  • Prevent assessment reports from skewing results of target sub groups (like those with special needs) by leveraging the results of higher achieving students against those who typically perform lower
  • See the extent of individual students with special needs meeting state standards (Salvia, Ysseldyke, & Bolt, 2010)
  • Inform public of accurate school achievement data (Salvia, Ysseldyke, & Bolt, 2010)
  • Show the extent to which specific subgroups are meeting state standards (Salvia, Ysseldyke, & Bolt, 2010)
  • Allows effort and resources to be directed toward struggling subgroups (Salvia, Ysseldyke, & Bolt, 2010)

NCLB allows states to create alternate assessments for students in special education that cannot meaningfully participate in the general assessment. With the amendment to NCLB in 2005, schools are now allowed to report up to 3% of students taking alternate assessments towards AYP requirements. Proponents of NCLB and increased accountability feel that the provision for use of alternate assessments accounts for states to be able to include all students in achievement measures. Alternate assessments can be used for students with disabilities in order to measure achievement. According to Roach and Elliot (2010), these assessments are only useful for the extent that they:
  1. are measures of what students are learning in their classes
  2. are aligned to state grade-level content standards
  3. scores can be used for AYP calculations

Data gathered from alternate assessments is usually different from that gathered from the general assessment, however, if they are aligned well with the same academic standards, then the performance of students with disabilities on alternate assessments can show progress toward achieving the same necessary skills and knowledge expected of all students (Roach & Elliot, 2010). Based on the ability of states to test some students with disabilities using alternative assessments, the desire to hold schools and districts accountable for all student achievement is made attainable.

The mandated system of accountability under NCLB represents a major change in how the achievement of students with special needs is measured. Prior to provisions to IDEA 1997 and NCLB, the primary source of accountability for students with special needs were the goals written in their Individual Educational Plans (IEPs) (McLaughlin & Thurlow, 2010). These goals are often not standards based, making direct peer-to-peer comparison less reliable and valid. Privacy provisions within the IEP prevented schools from reporting student achievement data for students with special needs. Measuring student achievement based on IEP goals did not hold anyone accountable; no consequences were established for failure to attain goals (McLaughlin & Thurlow, 2010). In essence, accountability in terms of students receiving special education services was determined based on if IEPs were filled out correctly for each student. Students were rarely given full access to the general education curriculum, and therefore not expected to participate in standardized tests with their non-disabled peers.

George W. Bush Speaks on NCLB

external image nclb.gifIII. Opponents Perspective:

Recent mandates introduced under IDEA and NCLB hold all students accountable with the same achievement standards. This includes students with special needs. The mandate for all students to be tested according to the same achievement standards is controversial. Based on assessment data, it is NCLB’s plan that schools and districts will allocate more effort and resources to help the subgroups that are struggling to meet goals in certain areas (Jennings, 2008). Although NCLB had clear goals in mind with the mandate of all students being included in state and district level standardized tests, unintended consequences have surfaced with the accountability of students with special needs. Opponents of the new regulations claim that:

  • Educators divert more resources to students at the cusp of meeting achievement goals “bubble kids” instead of the most needy students
  • Educators divert resources away from students with special needs whose scores are not counted (Jennings, 2008)
  • Little incentive to focus time and attention to students that are unlikely to reach proficiency on assessments (Jennings, 2008)
  • Special education students may end up losing the scarce educational resources they do have
  • Nonstandard accommodations can invalidate a student’s assessment score and remove that score from any aggregate performance report (McLaughlin, & Thurlow, 2010)
  • Certain states have different thresholds for score reporting based on confidentiality needs
    • E.g. Wyoming won’t disaggregate data at the school level for five or less students (McLaughlin, & Thurlow, 2010)
  • Based on normative sampling collection procedures, concerns exist on validity of results on standardized tests taken by students with disabilities
  • School population may adversely affect overall school performance towards meeting AYP (Jennings, 2010)
  • Variation exists between state accommodation policies; there is no distinction between which accommodations may be a threat to test validity
  • Causes additional paperwork for special educators, taking away from instructional time for the students (Harvey, 2004)
  • IEP goals do not necessarily relate to state standards, meaning students may not be tested on the material they are being instructed on (Harvey, 2004)

President Obama on NCLB

Video on the Implications of Standardized Tests

external image puzzle-lg.jpgIV. Areas of Future Research:

The mandates for inclusion of students with disabilities in accountability and assessment systems is still relatively new. Schools were not being held accountable for the achievement of students with disabilities until provisions to IDEA in 1997, with stricter mandates coming in 2001 with the passing of NCLB. Accountability and assessment systems have been a controversial topic across the nation, with sanctions and rewards given based on the ability of schools to make AYP. The mandated inclusion of students identified as special education has raised concern for unintended consequences for these students. Future research on this topic should focus exclusively on the impact of standardized assessment on students with disabilities in the areas below:

Test Accommodations
There is little research available on which testing accommodations may invalidate test scores for students with disabilities. According to Cox, Herner, & Nieberding (2006), an accommodation is any "change in the administration of an assessment that allows students to demonstrate their ability without affecting the validity of the assessment." Each state is responsible for their own list of acceptable accommodations for state level assessments, meaning the same accommodation may be acceptable in one state and invalidate a student's score in another. More research on each specific assessment accommodation would allow states to create lists of acceptable accommodations with greater consistency across state lines. By studying the links between specific accommodations and the performance of students with disabilities on assessments, a more consistent understanding of appropriate accommodations can be held nationwide.

Who is taking alternate assessments, who is exempt?
As of March of 2005, schools are now allowed to have up to 3% of students in special education take alternate assessments and still have their scores count towards AYP (Jennings, 2008). According to Jennings (2008), some schools choose the 3% of students strategically in order to use test data to their advantage when reporting AYP for the school. In addition, in order for AYP to be met, at least 95% of each subgroup must take the standardized assessment. Future research should focus on the exact students that schools and districts decide to give alternate assessments to, as well as the up to 5% of students in each subgroup that are either not tested at all, or whose scores are not reported. Based on the findings of this research there may be a consistent smaller subgroup of students completely unaccounted for in NCLB reported data.

What is being sacrificed in order to comply with NCLB by students with disabilities?
In an age where "teaching to the test" has become a common term, it is important to know just what is being sacrificed in order for students with disabilities to take and pass standardized assessments. Students with disabilities are often the neediest students in schools, and therefore require the most intensive supports and resources. The passing of NCLB in 2001 marked the first time students with disability's scores were reported publicly. The focus of achievement for students with disabilities has made a dramatic shift from meeting individual goals to performing on standardized assessments. With this shift, instruction has focused increasingly on content covered by state assessments. With this shift in instructional focus, something is being sacrificed for students with disabilities. Future research should focus on what instruction is being cut out of the curriculum for students with disabilities in order to fit in more time for teaching content specifically on the assessment. McLaughlin and Thurlow (2010) wonder, "how current accountability practices that require teachers to teach specific subject matter, result on kinds of educational outcomes that are valued by students with disabilities [such as employment and independence]?

How do state confidentiality policies affect the reporting of data for students with disabilities?
McLaughlin and Thurlow (2010) state that individual states have their own policies on the issue of confidentiality. Wyoming for instance, will not disaggregate test data if a subgroup is smaller than five students (McLaughlin & Thurlow, 2010). This impacts the data being reported by states in order to make AYP. Future research should focus on how differing confidentiality policies by state affect how test data is reported. Based on the subgroups that are not disaggregated, test data can be misinterpreted. It is important to know how the subgroup data that is not disaggregated affects overall school and district data and performance towards making AYP.

How reliable are inferences made from current state administered assessments?
Currently, states are responsible for creating their own state assessments, along with standard accommodations and modified versions. Each state is required to align assessments with the state content standards for each grade-level. Future research should focus on how reliable inferences made based on these assessments are for students with disabilities. Each state determines it's own level of 'proficient,' meaning students may be considered proficient in one state and not in another. Inferences are made based on data collected from these state assessments, how will these inferences change in the future with the introduction of content standards adopted nationwide?

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external image teachers.jpgV. What This Means for Teachers and School:

Are modifications and accommodations available on standardized tests?:

Most students undergo assessment on one of two forms depending on their level of need for modifications that do not detract from general content knowledge constructs. These forms are either regular grade-level assessment or alternative assessment based on grade-level academic achievement standards (AA-GLAS). Typical grade level assessments would appear in a non-modified form and measure student progress on same state grade level content standards as all students. AA-GLAS formatted assessments still assess test subjects on core content standards but may appear in a different format. Performance on an AA-GLAS assessment would define a student’s level of proficiency as it relates to grade-level achievement but with accommodations that enable test populations to better adapt to test items. For example, this may involve an assessment be printed with larger text for an individual with a visual impairment, or being read aloud. While these two accommodations would allow a student to perform closer to their true ability level, the difficulty of the assessment is unchanged.

Alternate assessments based on modified achievement standards (AA-MAS) are appropriate forms of assessment for students who have not responded adequately to appropriate instructional protocols, but still aligned with grade level content standards the student is enrolled in. This assessment form may still be challenging for an eligible student. However, the level of difficulty on an AA-MAS assessment may be less than that of the standard grade-level achievement level. For example, on a mathematics assessment that targets multiple digit addition, an AA-MAS assessment form may not have any test items that involve regrouping of numbers while the standard assessment form did. In the state of Connecticut both the Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT) and Connecticut Academic Performance Test (CAPT), make provisions for a MAS form. While they consistently measure grade level content standards for eligible students, they are “designed to be more appropriate for those special education students whose disability would preclude them during a given school year from achieving grade-level proficiency on the standard test” (Salvia, J., Ysseldyke, J. E., & Bolt, S., 2010, Chapter 22).

For students whose present level of performance and pervasiveness of disability prevents assessment on typical grade level standards there are alternate assessments based on alternate achievement standards (AA-AAS). Assessment forms based on these modified achievement standards represent an exception of performance that differs in complexity from a grade-level achievement standard. Usually assessment of this type is limited to a very small sampling of content that while linked, does not represent the full breadth of grade-level content or is more functionally based and relevant to the test taker. For example, an AA-AAS assessment form may take into consideration that typical achievement forms include addition but only include single digit addition. In Connecticut, the CMT/CAPT Skills Checklist is a form of AA-AAS. Designated exclusively for students in special education whose significant cognitive disabilities prevent the realistic benefits of other accommodations or modifications, an IEP team must first determine on a case by case basis whether eligibility criteria have been met before an individual may be assessed using this AA-AAS form. The Skills Checklist is specifically designed to align with skills and objectives listed in state curriculum frameworks and standards but only for accountability purposes to determine the extent to which a student has been given the opportunity to receive core content instruction.
*Information in the above section was synthesized using information found from Salvia, J., Ysseldyke, J. E., & Bolt, S. (2010).

external image books-computer.jpgVI. Additional Resources:

  • The Connecticut State Department of Education: This website has an entire piece devoted to assessment. It provides information both on the CMT (used for elementary and middle school students) and the CAPT (used for high school students). This website is a great resource for teachers and parents in the state of Connecticut. It provides details on scheduling, past assessment data, and available accommodations and modifications.
  • The U.S. Department of Education: This website offers a lot of information about education for the entire country. There is a link on the top right of the page that brings up a page on NCLB. Once on the NCLB portion of the page, it offers information on accountability, methods, and links to the actual act itself. This is a very important cite to understand the nuances of the NCLB Act of 2001.
  • Individuals with Disabilities Education Act: The IDEA website is a branch off of the U.S. Department of Education website. On the IDEA site it gives a comprehensive guide to special education law. Along the left hand side of the page are links to specific areas of special education. There are links to IEPs as well as district and state level assessments.
  • National Center on Educational Outcomes: This website offers a great resource on topics and tools related to educational outcomes for students. There is an entire portion devoted to 'Topics for Students with Disabilities.' This center has also done studies of the impact of accommodations on students with disabilities. The data from these studies can be found on this site. However, as mentioned in our areas of future research, these studies have all been small scale in scope.

VII. References

Assessment guidelines for administering the connecticut mastery test (CMT) connecticut academic performance test (CAPT) and connecticut alternate assessments. (2010). Retrieved December 4, 2010, from
Bay district schools. Retrieved December 3, 2010, from
Cox, M. L., Herner, J. G., Demczyk, M. J., & Nieberding, J. J. (2006). Provision of testing accommodations for students with disabilities on statewide assessments: Statistical links with participation and discipline rates. Remedial and Special Education, 27(6-), 346-354.
Gamble-Risley, M. (2006). Surviving accountability: As easy as AYP. T.H.E.Journal, 33(13), 38-42.
Harvey, C. (2004). Special education solutions in the age of NCLB. T.H.E.Journal, 31(10), 68.
Jennings, J. L., & Beveridge, A. A. (2009). How does test exemption affect schools' and students' academic performance? Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 31(2), 153-175.
Jordan, W. J. (2010). Defining equity: Multiple perspectives to analyzing the performance of diverse learners. Review of Research in Education, 34(1), 142-178.
Kauffman, J. M., McGee, K., & Brigham, M. (2004). Enabling or disabling? observations on changes in special education. Phi Delta Kappan, 85(8), 613.
Nagle, K. M., McLaughlin, M. J., Nolet, V., Malmgren, K., & Educational Policy Reform, R. I. (2007). Students with disabilities and accountability reform: Findings from the california case study.Educational Policy Reform Research Institute.
O'Malley, J. M., & Pierce, L. V. (1994). Educational Assessment, 2(3), 213.
Roach, A. T., & Elliot, S. N. (2010). Educational evaluation and policy analysis: The influence of access to general education curriculum on alternate assessment performance of students with significant cognitive disabilities
Salvia, J., Ysseldyke, J. E., & Bolt, S. (2010). Assessment in special and inclusive education (11th ed.) Wadsworth Cengage Learning.
Schulte, A. C., & Villwock, D. N. (2004). Using high-stakes tests to derive school-level measures of special education efficacy. Exceptionality, 12(2), 107-126.
YouTube. Retrieved December 5, 2010, from