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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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Legal and Policy Issues When State Boards of Education and Departments of Education make policies and decisions, they need to understand that the requirements for including all children in assessments, including students with learning disabilities, are based on federal laws and regulations. State and district-wide assessment is an integral aspect of educational accountability systems that provide valuable information that benefits individual students by measuring individual progress against standards. Because of the benefits that accrue as the result of assessment, exclusion from assessments solely on the basis of a learning disability would violate Section 504 and the Americans with Disabilities Act [ADA] of 1990 [PL 101-336]. IDEA provides parents and educators with tools to “promote improved educational results for children with disabilities through early intervention, preschool, and educational experiences that prepare them for later educational challenges and employment.” The new focus is intended to produce attention to the accommodations and adjustments necessary for children with disabilities to access the general education curriculum and the special services, which may be necessary for appropriate participation’ Children with disabilities must be included in state and district-wide assessments of student progress with individual modifications and accommodations as needed. Thus, the bill requires that the IEP include a statement of any individual modifications in the administration of state and district-wide assessments’ The committee reaffirms the existing Federal Law requirement that children with disabilities participate in state and district-wide assessments.’” (Committee on Labor and Human Resources Report of May 9, 1997) Making Accommodation and Modification Decisions A student with a learning disability may be eligible under IDEA or qualified under Section 504. Thus, the student’s individualized education program (IEP) team or 504 committee needs to determine any needed accommodations or modifications in order for the student to participate in state and district-wide assessment programs. As the IEP team or 504 committee makes these decisions they need to base their decisions on the full understanding of the consequences for reporting and accountability. It is important that the IEP team or 504 committee makes sure that the accommodations and modifications do not breach test security nor invalidate the purpose of assessment. For example, a passage that is used to measure reading comprehension should not be read to the student, however, subsequent questions regarding the passage may be.

Accommodations and modifications may be in the areas of timing/scheduling, setting, presentation, and response mode. A list of examples of accommodations and modifications in each of these areas can be found in Appendix B.

One of the most critical aspects of effective high-stakes assessment of students with learning disabilities is the process used to determine which accommodations and modifications the student with a learning disability will need to access and participate in state and district-wide assessment programs. The IEP team or 504 committee through a process that ensures parents’ active participation makes this decision. The IEP team or 504 committee must understand how their decisions regarding accommodations and modifications will affect the use of the scores as well as the student’s ability to be promoted to the next grade or graduate from school with a standard diploma.

The accommodations and modifications the IEP team or 504 committee identify to be used during state and district-wide assessments should be chosen from those the student needs and uses during classroom instruction and assessment and are listed in the student’s IEP or 504 plan. The use of unfamiliar accommodations or modifications on state or district-wide assessments may have a negative impact on the student’s performance.

Additionally, it is important that the accommodations and modifications are in no way based on the setting in which a student receives services, the student’s disability, the number of classes the student attends in the general education curriculum, or based solely on the potential the accommodations and modifications have to enhance performance beyond providing equal access.

Questions that the IEP team or 504 committee should consider in determining which accommodations and modifications the student will use in instruction and assessment should be considered relative to state and district-wide assessment programs (Elliot,

Thurlow, Ysseldyke, & Erickson, 1997). These include but are not limited to:

Setting/Timing Can the student focus on his or her work with 25 to 30 other students in a quiet !


Does the student display behaviors that are distracting to him or her or to other !


Can the student take a test in the same way as it is administered to other students?


Can the student work continuously for the entire length of a test?


Does the student use accommodations that require more time?


Scheduling Does the student take medication that dissipates over time, so that optimal !

performance might occur at a certain time of the day?

Does the student’s anxiety level increase dramatically when working in certain !

content areas; so that these should be administered after all other content areas are assessed?

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Response Can the student write? Can the student track from a test booklet to a test response !


Concluding Comments The NJCLD strongly believes that the use of assessment accommodations and modifications must be provided to ensure that students with learning disabilities have an equal opportunity to demonstrate what they know. The fact that students with learning disabilities use an accommodation or modification during general instruction or assessment, however, does not automatically mean that they need to use it during state and district-wide assessments. These decisions must be made for each student, taking into consideration the ramifications of such decisions. Schools must be accountable for not only the development of literacy skills, learning strategies, and social skills, but also the academic outcomes of students with learning disabilities. State and district-wide assessments are an important part of demonstrating this accountability. Students with learning disabilities must have access and participate in these assessments. Additionally, the administration of high-stakes tests with appropriated accommodations and modifications will enhance student outcomes, reduce dropout rates, and lead to graduation with proficiency.

Appendix A

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Based on Thompson, Johnstone, and Thurlow (2002). From Universally Designed Assessments: Better Tests for Everyone! Prepared by Sandra Thompson and Martha Thurlow National Center on Educational Outcomes Policy Directions Number 14 / June Inclusive Assessment Population When tests are first conceptualized, they need to be thought of in the context of who will be tested. If the test is designed for state, district, or school accountability purposes, the target population must include every student except those who will participate in accountability through the alternate assessment. Assessments need to be responsive to growing demands–increased diversity, increased inclusion of all types of students in the general curriculum, and increased emphasis and commitment to accountability for all students.

Precisely Defined Constructs An important function of well-designed assessments is that they actually measure what they are intended to measure. Test developers need to carefully examine what is to be tested and design items that offer the greatest opportunity for success within those constructs. Just as universally designed architecture removes physical, sensory, and cognitive barriers to all types of people in public and private structures, universally designed assessments must remove all non-construct-oriented cognitive, sensory, emotional, and physical barriers.

Accessible, Non-Biased Items Items are reviewed through bias review or sensitivity review procedures to ensure that they do not create barriers because of lack of sensitivity to disability, cultural, or other subgroups. But, perhaps more important, items are developed by individuals who understand the varied characteristics of students, and the characteristics of items that might create difficulties for any group of students. Accessibility is incorporated as a primary dimension of test specifications, so that accessibility is woven into the fabric of the test rather than being added after the fact.

Amenable to Accommodations Even though items on universally designed assessments will be accessible for most students, there will still be some students who continue to need accommodations. Thus, another essential element of any universally designed assessment is that it is compatible with accommodations and a variety of widely used adaptive equipment and assistive technology.

Simple, Clear, and Intuitive Instructions and Procedures Assessment instructions should be easy to understand, regardless of a student’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level. Directions and questions need to be in simple, clear, and understandable language. Knowledge questions that are posed in complex language certainly invalidate the test if students cannot understand how they are expected to respond to a question.

Maximum Readability and Comprehensibility A variety of guidelines exist to ensure that text is maximally readable and comprehensible. These features go beyond what is measured by readability formulas.

Readability and comprehensibility are affected by many characteristics, including student background, sentence difficulty, organization of text, and others. All of these features need to be considered in developing the text of assessments.

Plain language is a concept now being highlighted in research on assessments. Plain language has been defined as language that is straightforward and concise. Strategies for editing text to produce plain language have been identified (see Table 1).

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Maximum Legibility Legibility is the physical appearance of text, the way the shapes of letters and numbers enable people to read text easily. As delineated by Schriver, a leading document designer, text that is legible can be read “quickly, effortlessly, and with understanding” (see Resources—not there). Despite a great deal of research on what the characteristics of maximum legibility are, the personal opinions of editors about how they want text to look often prevail.

Bias results when tests contain physical features that interfere with a student’s focus on or understanding of the constructs that test items are intended to assess. Dimensions can include contrast, type size, spacing, typeface, leading, justification, line length/width, blank space, graphs and tables, illustrations, and response formats (see Table 2).

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Additional Resources Heubert, J. P. and Hauser, M., Eds. (1999). High stakes testing for tracking, promotion, and graduation. National Research Council. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

McDonnell, Lorraine M., McLaughlin, Margaret J., and Morison, Patricia, Eds. (1997).

Educating one and all: Students with disabilities and standards-based reform. National Research Council. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Thompson, S. J., Thurlow, M. L., Quenemoen, R. F., & Lehr, C. A. (2002). Access to computer-based testing for students with disabilities (Synthesis Report 45). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes. Retrieved

January 15, 2003, from the World Wide Web:

http://education.umn.edu/NCEO/OnlinePubs/Synthesis45.html U.S. Department of Education --Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services.

(2000, August). Questions and answers about provisions in the individuals with Disabilities Educational Act of 1997 related to students with disabilities and state and district-wide assessments. (Memorandum OSEP 00-24). Washington, D.C.: Author.

U.S. Department of Education – Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services.

(2001, January). Clarification of the role of the IEP team in selecting individual accommodations, modifications in administration, and alternate assessments for state and

district-wide assessments of student achievement. (Memorandum). Washington, D.C.:


U.S. Department of Education – Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services.

(2001, January). Guidance on including students with disabilities in assessment programs (Memorandum OSEP 01-06). Washington, D.C.: Author.

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights. (2000, December). The use of tests as part of high-stakes decision–making for students: A resource guide for educators and policy-makers. Washington, D.C.: Author.

Additional information and resources relative to students with disabilities on the topics of accommodations, accountability, graduation requirements, standards, universal design, out-of-level testing, and participation can be found on the National Center on Education Outcomes Web site: http://education.umn.edu/NCEO/ References References American Education Research Association. AERA position statement concerning highstakes testing in prek-12 education. (July 2002).

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, PL 101-336, 42 U.S.C. &#sect;&#sect;

12101 et seq.

Brown, P. J. (1999). Findings of the 1999 plain language field test. University of Delaware, Newark, DE: Delaware Education Research and Development Center.

Committee on Labor and Human Resources Report of May 9, 1997.

Elliott, J., Thurlow, M., Ysseldyke, J., & Erickson, R. (1997). Providing assessment accommodations for students with disabilities in state and district assessments (Policy Directions No. 7). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, National Center on

Educational Outcomes. Retrieved January 15, 2003, from the World Wide Web:

http://education.umn.edu/NCEO/OnlinePubs/Policy7.html Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments of 1997, PL 105-17, 20 U.S.C.

&#sect;&#sect; 1400 et seq.

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