Guidebook to Including Students with Disabilities and English Learners in Assessments
Lesson 4. Gain an understanding of why it is important to include all students in assessment systems, including students with disabilities, English learners, and English learners with disabilities
There are many reasons why it is important to include all students in assessment systems. Beyond the fact that federal laws require inclusion, much has been learned over time about the reasons for inclusive assessments. For example, including all students allows for a more accurate picture of the achievement of all students, promotes inclusion in instruction, provides for more accurate comparisons, and ultimately promotes attainment of high expectations.
Historically, students with disabilities, English learners, and English learners with disabilities were excluded from national and state assessments. Concerns about this exclusion arose in the early 1990s, with a focus primarily on students with disabilities. The question was, “does all really mean all?” and the mantra became, “we measure what we treasure.” These ideas prompted much discussion. Early work identified numerous consequences of the exclusionary approach, including for example:
- Statements about the achievement of all children were inaccurate because they did not include all students.
- Students who were excluded from assessments tended to be ignored during instruction.
- States, districts, and schools included different percentages of their students with disabilities, with some including all (in part, through the provision of accommodations and alternate assessments), and others including virtually none of these students.
Although this movement started with a focus on students with disabilities, the focus on English learners quickly followed and mirrored those efforts (Rivera & Collum, 2006). The focus on English learners with disabilities came much later as schools increasingly recognized students who were identified as needing both English learner and special education services; the focus on English learners with the most significant cognitive disabilities came even later, after 2010 (NCEO, 2014). As a consequence of these efforts, students with disabilities, English learners, and English learners with disabilities are considered from the beginning and included—during the design, development, pilot testing, field testing, and other procedures (e.g., cognitive labs), as well as in the actual assessment.
Information on a state’s commitment to the inclusion of all students is reflected in its participation criteria and guidelines. These confirm that participation is required in all state assessments. State guidelines have evolved over time as the importance of developing specific criteria for some students (e.g., recently arrived English learners, students with the most significant cognitive disabilities) emerged.
Participation criteria generally are included in state manuals that address both participation and accessibility. An example of a template for such accessibility manuals is provided by CCSSO (2016). It provides information about students with disabilities, English learners, and English learners with disabilities in one document. This is the most common approach now, whereas in the past, there were often separate manuals for students with disabilities and English learners (educators were expected to look at both if they had English learners with disabilities).
In some cases, states separate the participation criteria for their alternate assessment from those for their regular assessment. Alternate assessment participation criteria must be of sufficient detail to help educators determine whether a student has a “most significant” cognitive disability that requires participation in an alternate assessment based on alternate academic achievement standards (AA-AAAS).
Participation Considerations for Students with Disabilities
States’ participation guidelines for students with disabilities should address two things:
- Participation of approximately 90% of students with disabilities is required in all regular assessments administered by the state.
- Participation of approximately 10% of students with disabilities is required for alternate assessments of content administered by the state. This percentage translates to the participation threshold of 1.0% of all tested students participating in the alternate assessment.
For students with disabilities, IEP teams determine, for each content area, the assessment in which a student participates. This makes the participation guidelines especially important; they are the basis for the IEP team determination of whether a student has a most significant cognitive disability that allows that student to participate in the AA-AAAS. With the 1.0% threshold for participation of students with disabilities in the alternate assessment, and the ensuing waiver request requirements (see Strunk & Thurlow, 2019), states should provide training and conduct monitoring in addition to providing multiple forms of guidelines (e.g., text, decision trees, checklists) for participation in alternate assessments.
Existing state guidelines have incorporated these requirements. For example, along with a text description of its guidelines , in 2017 Indiana provided a flow chart of the alternate assessment participation decision (see Figure 1).
Links to states’ assessment participation guidelines for students with disabilities are regularly updated by NCEO (see http://nceo.info/state_policies/participationswd).
Participation Considerations for English Learners
States’ participation guidelines for English learners should address three things:
- Participation in all assessments administered by the state.
- Recently arrived English learners may have different requirements for participation in the reading/language arts assessment in their first year in country.
- Participation in the ELP assessment is required for all English learners in grades K-12 until they are exited from English learner services; this includes English learners with the most significant cognitive disabilities who may need to participate in an alternate ELP assessment.
Although ESSA requires only assessments of reading/language arts, mathematics, and science, participation of English learners is required in all state assessments, which might include, for example, social studies and graduation exams. The one exception is for recently arrived English learners, who may not be required to participate in the assessment of reading/language arts during the first year in the U.S. ESSA defines “recently arrived” English learners as English learners who have been enrolled in schools in the U.S., or the District of Columbia, for less than 12 months (Sec. 1111(b)(3)(A) and Sec. 8101(48)).
Regardless of whether they are receiving English learner services, English learners are required to participate in the state’s ELP assessment (U.S. Department of Education, 2015). When a student is determined to have reached English language proficiency, and is exited from receiving English learner services, ESSA allows for states to include, for up to four years after exit, former English learners in academic achievement assessment results.
Existing state guidelines have incorporated these requirements. For example, in Alaska’s 2018 Guidance for English Learners (EL) Identification, Assessment, and Data Reporting, there is a statement about assessment participation requirements:
All students identified as English learners must participate in all applicable assessments included in the Alaska Comprehensive System of Student Assessment (CSSA). The CSSA consists of the following assessments:
- Performance Evaluation for Alaska’s Schools (PEAKS) Assessments in English language arts (ELA) and math grades 3-10; grades 4, 8, and 10 in science;
- Dynamic Learning Maps (DLM) Alternate Assessments for students with significant cognitive disabilities – ELA and math grades 3-10; grades 4, 8, and 10 in science;
- English Language Proficiency Assessment (ELP) – ACCESS for ELLs 2.0 for English Learners
- Alaska Developmental Profile (ADP) – kindergarten students;
- National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) – grades 4 and 8 (biennial assessment, select schools only).
Another example is found in the Massachusetts (2019), Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System: Principal’s Administration Manual (see Figure 2).
Links to states’ assessment participation guidelines for English learners are regularly updated by NCEO (see https://nceo.info/state_policies/participationells).
Participation Considerations for English Learners with Disabilities
States’ participation guidelines for English learners with disabilities should address two things:
- Participation of English learners with disabilities in all regular assessments and ELP assessments administered by the state.
- Participation of English learners with the most significant cognitive disabilities in alternate assessments of content and English language proficiency administered by the state, including considerations for those students in kindergarten to grade 2 and any high school grade for which the state might not have an alternate content assessment.
For English learners with disabilities, IEP teams determine, for each content test or ELP test, the assessment in which a student participates. The IEP team should include an English learner educator, as well as other required participants. The importance of the decision about which assessment a student takes makes the state’s participation guidelines especially important; they are the basis for the IEP team determination of whether a student has a most significant cognitive disability that allows that student to participate in the AA-AAAS or the alternate ELP assessment; the numbers of English learners with disabilities participating in alternate assessments should be very small.
For the ELP assessment, the IEP team also makes the decision about whether the student has a disability (e.g., deafness) that precludes participation in one or more domains of the ELP or Alt-ELP assessment (e.g., listening, speaking), which is allowed by ESSA as long as a score is obtained that determines the student’s level of English language proficiency.
Meeting the assessment requirements for English learners with disabilities, in turn, necessitates good state criteria for determining whether a student is actually an English learner with a disability. CCSSO (Park, Martinez, & Chou, 2017) provided several recommendations for addressing this need (see also Lesson 4 Resources). In addition, many states are developing resources to address these criteria for English learners with disabilities (see Burr, 2019).
Because participation in an alternate ELP assessment is viewed as a new requirement, many states are focusing on this decision in their participation criteria. For example, California clarifies the ways in which ELs with disabilities are to be assessed:
In accordance with the ED guidance issued in July 2014, the ED requires that all English learners with disabilities participate in the state ELP assessment. Federal law requires that all English learners with disabilities participate in the state ELP assessment in the following ways, as determined by the IEP team:
- In the regular state ELP assessment without accommodations
- In the regular state ELP assessment with accommodations determined by the IEP team
- In an alternate assessment aligned with the state ELP standards, if the IEP team determines that the student cannot participate in the regular ELP assessment with or without accommodations
Source: 2018-19 English Language Proficiency Assessments for California: Information Guide, p. 19. https://www.cde.ca.gov/ta/tg/ep/documents/elpacinfoguide.pdf
The World-class Instructional Design and Assessment (WIDA) consortium of states provides its members with a decision tree to assist decision makers in the determination of whether a student should participation in its Alternate ACCESS for ELLs (see Figure 3).
Lesson 4 Resources
NCEO. (2019) 2018-19 participation guidelines and definitions for alternate assessments based on alternate academic achievement standards. https://nceo.umn.edu/docs/OnlinePubs/NCEOReport415.pdf
NCEO. State Policies links for Assessment Participation of Students with Disabilities. https://nceo.info/state_policies/policy/participationswd
NCEO. State Policies links for Assessment Participation of ELs. https://nceo.info/state_policies/policy/participationells
U.S. Department of Education Guidance (2015). Ensuring English Learner Students Can Participate Meaningfully and Equally in Educational Programs. https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/dcl-factsheet-el-students-201501.pdf
U.S. Department of Education (2017, May 16). Letter on Requirements for the Cap on the Percentage of Students who may be Assessed with an Alternate Assessment Aligned with Alternate Academic Achievement Standards. https://www2.ed.gov/admins/lead/account/saa/onepercentcapmemo51617.pdf
U.S. Department of Education (2018, August). Letter on Additional Information Regarding the Requirements to Request a Waiver from the One Percent Cap on the Percentage of Students Who May Be Assessed with an Alternate Assessment Aligned with Alternate Academic Achievement Standards (AA-AAAS). https://www2.ed.gov/admins/lead/account/saa/ossstateassessmentltr.pdf
U.S. Department of Education (2019, March). Letter on Information Regarding Consequences for States Not Meeting the Requirement to Assess Not More than 1.0 Percent of Students on the Alternate Assessment. Available from the ESEA Network https://www.eseanetwork.org/news-and-resources/blogs/others/information-regarding-consequences-for-states-not-meeting-the-requirement-to-assess-not-more-than-1-0-percent-of-students-on-the-alternate-assessment