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«State and District-Wide Assessments and Students with Learning Disabilities: A Guide for States and School Districts By: National Joint Committee on ...»

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State and District-Wide Assessments and

Students with Learning Disabilities: A

Guide for States and School Districts

By: National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities (2004)

The National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities (NJCLD) recognizes the role that

state and district-wide assessments of learning outcomes have towards achieving high

academic standards for students and documenting educational accountability for the

public. For students with learning disabilities such assessments often present both needed opportunities and serious challenges. It is imperative that students with learning disabilities are provided the opportunity to access, participate, and demonstrate knowledge and skills in state and district-wide assessments.

Throughout the United States over the last several years, states have been involved in educational reform. A major focus has been to make public schools accountable for the education of all students, including students with learning disabilities. This includes setting high academic standards, raising graduation requirements, and creating highstakes state assessments that may affect grade promotion, graduation, scholarship eligibility, and the accreditation of individual schools. With this paper the NJCLD highlights issues and offers guidance on sound implementation of state and district-wide assessments to ensure equal access by students with learning disabilities.

Federal regulations require access and accountability for students with learning disabilities. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 [PL 93-112], as amended, requires that individuals with disabilities, including students with learning disabilities, be given equal opportunity to participate in and benefit from the policies and procedures customarily granted to all individuals. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1997 [IDEA], [PL 105-17], regulations require that all students with disabilities participate in a state’s accountability system. Additionally, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 [NCLB], [PL 107-110], requires that at least 95% of students with disabilities participate in assessments that measure adequate yearly progress of schools, school districts, and states.

Thus, State Boards of Education and Departments of Education must understand that the participation of students with learning disabilities in state and district-wide assessments is not participation just for the sake of participation. Instead, participation in these assessments must lead to informed teaching, improved learning, and the acquisition of needed literacy skills, learning strategies, and social skills that allow students with learning disabilities to access the general education curriculum. Furthermore, these assessments must be related to outcomes that go beyond the schoolhouse door (e.g., employment, technical education, post-secondary education).

The National Center on Educational Outcomes has noted that as of 2000-2001 all states have state assessments and that 22 states were using these assessments as a condition for graduation from high school (Thurlow, Wiley, & Bielinski, 2002). However, there is the potential for harm if high-stakes assessment programs are implemented with insufficient resources or with tests that lack the needed reliability and validity for their intended

purposes. As a result:

Students may be placed at an increased risk of academic failure and dropping out !

of school;

Curriculum and classroom instruction may be severely distorted if the goal of !

instruction becomes achieving high test scores instead of learning;

The public and policy makers may be misled by an increase in test scores that are !

not related to actual educational improvement;

Teachers may be required to spend excessive time reviewing and preparing for an !

assessment instead of providing the needed instruction; and Teachers may be blamed or punished for the lack of student achievement that may !

be the result of inadequate resources for which they have no control.

Conditions for Sound Implementation The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is addressing a wide range of discrimination complaints surrounding this issue of testing in the K-12 setting with implications for high standards learning. Therefore, when policies and decisions are made at the state level by Boards of Education and Departments of Education, the following set of conditions, which are adapted from the position statement of the American Educational Research Association (July 2002) on High-Stakes Testing in PreK-12 Education with which the NJCLD agrees, are essential to sound implementation of highstakes assessment programs for all students, including students with learning disabilities.

1. Protection Against High-Stakes Decisions Based on a Single Test

Decisions that affect individual students' life chances or educational opportunities should not be made on the basis of test scores alone. Other relevant information should be taken into account to enhance the overall validity of high-stakes decisions for individual students such as promotion to the next grade or high school graduation. Students must be afforded sufficient instruction and multiple opportunities and ways to demonstrate proficiency.

2. Adequate Resources and Opportunity to Learn

When academic standards and associated tests are introduced as a reform to change current practice, opportunities for educators to access appropriate materials and professional development consistent with the intended changes should be provided before schools, teachers, or students are sanctioned for failing to meet the new standards. In particular, when testing is used for individual student accountability, students must have an opportunity to learn the tested content and skills. Thus, it must be shown that the tested content and skills have been incorporated into the curriculum, materials, and instruction before highstakes consequences are imposed.

3. Validation for Each Intended Use

Tests valid for one use may not be valid for another. Each separate use of a highstakes test, for student accountability, school accountability, curricular improvement, increasing student motivation, or other uses requires a separate evaluation of the strengths and limitations of both the testing program and the test itself. Additionally, the manner in which test results are compiled and reported must also be consistent with their intended use. For instance, educational performance of a school with a high mobility rate would not be fairly assessed by a composite score of all students enrolled – many of whom were educated elsewhere.

4. Sufficient Reliability for Each Intended Use

Reliability refers to the accuracy or precision of test scores. It must be shown that scores reported for individuals or schools are sufficiently accurate to support each intended interpretation. High reliability is essential when high-stakes assessments contribute heavily to decisions about individual students.

5. Full Disclosure of Negative Consequences of High-Stakes Testing Programs Where credible scientific evidence suggests that a given type of testing program is likely to have negative consequences, test developers and users should make a serious effort to explain these possible effects to policy makers.

6. Ongoing Evaluation of Intended and Unintended Effects of High-Stakes Testing With any high-stakes testing program, ongoing evaluation of both intended and unintended consequences is essential. In most cases, the governmental body that mandates the test should also provide resources for a continuing program of research and dissemination of research findings concerning both the positive and the negative effects of the testing program. For example, unintended consequences of high-stakes assessment when used for school accountability may


A narrowing of the curriculum to the exclusion of other areas (e.g., the arts o and humanities) that prepare students for life after high school;

o The use of inappropriate “quick fix” approaches to learning;

o Finding ways to exclude students with learning and other disabilities from participation; and o Creating a culture that focuses on “teaching-to-the-test” at the exclusion of instruction in important content areas.

7. Alignment Between the Test and the Curriculum Both the content of the test and the processes needed in taking the test should adequately represent the curriculum. High-stakes tests should not be limited to that portion of the curriculum that is easiest to measure. The test should be aligned with the curriculum as set forth in state and district standards. Multiple test forms should be used or new test forms should be introduced on a regular basis to avoid a narrowing of the curriculum toward just the content sampled on a particular form and a distorting of instruction.

8. Validity of Passing Scores and Achievement Levels

When testing programs use specific scores to determine "passing" or define reporting categories like "proficient," the validity of these specific scores must be established. The purpose and meaning of passing scores or achievement levels must be clearly stated. There is often confusion, for example, between minimum competency levels (traditionally required for grade-to-grade promotion), grade level (traditionally defined as a range of scores around the national average on standardized tests), and "world-class" standards (set at the top of the distribution, anywhere from the 70th to the 99th percentile). Once the purpose is clearly identified, validity studies should be conducted to establish passing scores or proficiency levels consistent with the stated purpose.

9. Opportunities for Meaningful Remediation for Students Who Fail High-Stakes Tests Students who do not pass a high-stakes test should be provided meaningful opportunities for remediation. This remediation should focus on the knowledge and skills the test is intended to address, not just the test performance itself. For students with learning disabilities this includes the literacy skills needed to take the assessment. There should be sufficient time before retaking the test to assure that students have time to remedy any areas of concern.

10. Appropriate Attention to Language Differences

If a student lacks mastery of the language in which a test is given, then that test becomes, in part, a test of language proficiency. Unless a primary purpose of a test is to evaluate language proficiency, it should not be used with students who cannot understand the instructions or the language of the test itself. If English language learners are tested in English, their performance should be interpreted in the light of their language proficiency. Special accommodations for English language learners may be necessary to obtain valid scores. Also, it should be recognized that English language learners might have a learning disability and may need accommodations and modifications.

11. Appropriate Attention to Students With Disabilities In testing individuals with disabilities, steps should be taken to ensure that the test score inferences accurately reflect the intended construct rather than the students’ disabilities. Additionally, the tests must be developed to allow accessibility by students with disabilities, including learning disabilities.

12. Strict Adherence to Rules for Determining Which Students Are to be Tested

When schools, districts, or other administrative units are compared to one another or when changes in scores are tracked over time, there must be explicit policies specifying which students are to be tested and under what circumstances students may be exempted from testing. Such policies must be uniformly enforced to assure the validity of score comparisons. In addition, reporting of test score results should accurately portray the percentage of exempt students. However, there must never be a policy that exempts a student from participation solely based upon the student’s disability.

Universal Design Additionally, the NJCLD believes that state and district-wide assessments, including high-stakes and web-based assessments, must be developed using the principles of universal design. Universal design means that the assessments must be designed and developed from the beginning to be accessible and valid for the widest range of students, including students with learning disabilities. A review of the research by the National Center on Educational Outcomes (Thompson, Johnstone, & Thurlow, 2002) has identified seven elements of universal design that apply to assessments (see Appendix A for an explanation of each). They are Inclusive Assessment Population !

Precisely Defined Concepts !

Accessible, Non-Biased Items !

Amenable to Accommodations !

Simple, Clear, and Intuitive Instructions and Procedures !

Maximum Readability and Comprehensibility !

Maximum Legibility !

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