Guidebook to Including Students with Disabilities and English Learners in Assessments
Guidebook to Including Students with Disabilities and English Learners in Assessments
In the mid-1990s, a wave of concern about the exclusion from assessments of students with disabilities and English learners swept the country. This occurred, in part, because of the lack of data on the outcomes of the country’s investment in services for these students.
Much has changed since that time, changes that came through adjustments in beliefs, considerable research, and changes in assessment policies. There were continued discussions and lessons learned over nearly two decades about how to develop tests and policies inclusive of students with disabilities and English learners.
Still, with new personnel in state assessment, special education, Title I, and Title III offices, some of the reasons for ensuring that assessments and assessment policies are developed to be inclusive of all students have been lost. Similarly, approaches to developing and implementing inclusive assessments may have been forgotten.
The purpose of this Guidebook is to highlight the lessons learned in the past about how to ensure inclusive assessment practices for students with disabilities and English learners, as well as to provide foundational information on the characteristics of these students. The lessons presented here were gleaned from what we learned from state assessments used for accountability. These summative state assessments are generally part of a comprehensive and balanced assessment system that includes interim and formative assessments as well as summative ones. Although many of the lessons learned apply to all of these assessments, this Guidebook was not developed with the purposes of interim and formative assessments in mind.
This Guidebook is directed to state department of education staff and others interested in ensuring that assessments and assessment policies are inclusive of all students in the most appropriate ways possible. It is designed to provide brief information about each lesson learned, yet at the same time to direct the reader to resources that provide more in-depth information on the topic.
This Guidebook does not address inclusion in accountability systems, per se. If students with disabilities and English learners (including English learners with disabilities) are included in assessment systems, and the results from all assessments are included equitably in accountability systems, for the most part inclusive accountability will be achieved because the scores of students with disabilities and English learners will also be included in the accountability systems in the same way as all other students.
In developing this Guidebook, we reviewed reports on assessment best practices and assessment literacy from education organizations and technical assistance centers (see All Resources, listed in Appendix A). Based on our review and our own experiences as technical assistance providers, we identified the “top 10” lessons that should be attended to for ensuring an inclusive assessment system for students with disabilities and English learners. These 10 lessons are presented after a brief summary of the characteristics of students with disabilities and English learners.
Student Populations 
The United States public school system consists of an increasingly diverse student population that includes students with disabilities, English learners, and English learners with disabilities. All of these students are to be included in states’ assessment systems. Most will participate in regular assessments; a small percentage have the most significant cognitive disabilities and will participate in alternate assessments of content that are based on alternate academic achievement standards (AA-AAAS), and alternate English language proficiency (Alt-ELP) assessments if they are English learners with the most significant cognitive disabilities.
In the 2015-2016 school year, the 6.7 million students with disabilities represented 13 percent of the overall student population (NCES, 2018). Another 4.8 million students were English learners, making up 10 percent of the total K-12 student population (NCES, 2019). By 2015, approximately 9 percent of English learners and 8 percent of students with disabilities were identified as English learners with disabilities, totaling about 350,000 students (NASEM, 2017).
The small percentage of students with disabilities who have the most significant cognitive disabilities make it appropriate to hold them to alternate academic achievement standards (performance standards that are aligned to grade-level standards but have reduced depth, breadth, or complexity) rather than grade-level achievement standards. All states have explicit criteria for determining which students have the most significant cognitive disabilities and for deciding when the alternate assessment based on alternate academic achievement standards (AA-AAAS) is the most appropriate assessment (Thurlow, Albus, Larson, Liu, & Lazarus, 2019).
We have learned over time that students with the most significant cognitive disabilities are not characterized by any one disability category label. There is no disability category of “students with the most significant cognitive disabilities.” Generally, though, many but not all of the students with the most significant disabilities who participate in states’ AA-AAAS are students with intellectual disabilities, autism, and multiple disabilities (Kearns, Towles-Reeves, Kleinert, Kleinert, & Thomas, 2011). Thus, not all students with intellectual disabilities, autism, and multiple disabilities participate in the AA-AAAS. One state estimates, for example, that only 29% of its students with autism and 49% of its students with intellectual disabilities participated in its AA-AAAS. Estimates from the National Longitudinal Transition Study of 2012 suggest that approximately 60% of students with autism and students with multiple disabilities, and 65% of students with intellectual disabilities participate in assessments other than the general assessment (Wu, Thurlow, Johnson, & Lavelle, in process).
Both students with disabilities and English learners are heterogeneous in their characteristics. For example, of the 6.7 million students with disabilities, 34 percent had a specific learning disability, 20 percent reported a speech or language impairment, 9 percent were identified with autism, 6 percent showed an intellectual disability, and 2 percent had multiple disabilities (NCES, 2018). In addition, students with disabilities included students from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, including 14 percent White, 16 percent Black, 12 percent Hispanic, and 13 percent reporting two or more races (NCES, 2018). Furthermore, there are other disability categories—such as blind/visual impairment that comprise less than 1 percent of students with disabilities.
English learners differ by level of English language proficiency, home language proficiency, academic background in their home language, academic experience in English, and whether they are classified as a recently arrived English learner (Calderón, Slavin, & Sanchez, 2011). English learners also vary in the amount of time they have been classified as English learners. Further, states vary in the percentage of English learners represented in the student population, from 1 percent to 21 percent according to 2016-2017 Consolidated State Reports (U.S. Department of Education, 2018a). The most common home languages of English learners are Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, and Vietnamese (U.S. Department of Education, 2018b), although these also vary by state.
English learners with disabilities are receiving renewed attention because of the growing numbers of these students and the special considerations that are needed to ensure that they are included in assessments. English learners with disabilities most often have specific learning disabilities, but of course, they may also have other disabilities. In 2016-2017, English learners with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) in states ranged from 1 percent to 30 percent of the population of students with IEPs (Wu & Thurlow, 2019).
With the increased attention to English learners with disabilities has come the realization that there are English learners with the most significant cognitive disabilities whose English acquisition should be measured as well as their acquisition of academic content knowledge and skills. We are just beginning to learn about the characteristics of these students (see Christensen, Mitchell, Shyyan, & Ryan, 2018; Karvonen & Clark, 2019).
All this diversity means that it is important for states to develop and implement assessments that meet these students’ diverse needs while at the same time adhering to standards for valid, reliable, and fair assessments. It is important to take into account individual student needs, the intended construct being measured by the test, and the intended use of the test results when deciding how to make assessments accessible for all students.
Now, here are the “top 10” lessons that all state personnel (and others) should be aware of to ensure an inclusive assessment system for students with disabilities, English learners, and English learners with disabilities.
 Throughout this report, we address students with disabilities first then English learners. This ordering was used only because, historically, attention generally was given first to students with disabilities then to English learners, and still later to English learners with disabilities.