What New Special Education Directors Need to Know about Academic Assessments

What New Special Education Directors Need to Know about Academic Assessments

Share this page

State special education directors have an important role to play in ensuring that students with disabilities are provided accessible assessments, and that appropriate decisions are made about the participation of students with disabilities in these assessments.  

The purpose of this toolkit is to provide you easy access to information that will help you fulfill your role in ensuring the participation of students with disabilities in assessments. The toolkit will assist you in locating information and resources on the website of the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) . NCEO is a technical assistance center funded by the Office of Special Education Programs. It focuses on the inclusion of students with disabilities, English learners, and English learners with disabilities in instruction and assessments. NCEO has a wealth of assessment-related resources that will help you quickly become an informed assessment leader.

The information and resources highlighted in this resource can help support you in ensuring that all students with disabilities are included in state, district, and school assessments and accountability systems in a manner that is appropriate for each student based on their specific instructional and assessment needs.

Two education leaders reviewing notes.

Your Role as a New State Special Education Director

The primary role of state directors of special education is to ensure that schools and districts follow all state and federal laws and regulations on the identification, placement, and program development for students with disabilities. They do this by providing systemwide leadership that assures the development of effective and appropriate special education programs. Appropriate identification, placement, and program development includes collaborating on a variety of assessments included in a comprehensive assessment system at the state and local levels.

State directors of special education are in a unique position to be an expert on how to include students with disabilities in assessments. These assessments range from state assessments used for accountability purposes to districtwide assessments, and school and classroom assessments. State directors are also the experts for specially designed instruction, including ongoing assessment to measure progress. State directors can lead conversations about how to ensure that students with disabilities have access to standard-based academic content. These conversations can address accessibility and accommodations policies and guidance, as well as conversations about test selection processes and procedures for students with disabilities.

As a state director of special education, your collaborative and inclusive approach can influence stakeholders on the use of evidence-based practices within the comprehensive assessment system in your state, including design, development, and implementation of statewide general education assessments, alternate assessments, and assessments for English learners with disabilities. Key state agency partners with which to build a collaborative relationship on assessments include state directors of assessments, Title III (English learners), standards and curriculum, and accountability, as well as the data managers who submit required data to the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), including data for the State Performance Plan (SPP) Indicator 3 (assessments) for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Questions this Tool Addresses

This tool addresses eight critical questions and identifies helpful resources on the NCEO website:

  1. Which state assessments are required for students with disabilities?
  2. Why are state assessments important?
  3. Why should students with disabilities participate in state academic content assessments, and what laws require their participation?
  4. What are alternate assessments, and for which students are they appropriate?
  5. What role do accommodations have in state testing, and how should the IEP team make decisions about assessment accommodations?
  6. What special considerations are there for testing English learners with disabilities using English Language Proficiency (ELP) assessments?
  7. What are the requirements and best practices for including students with disabilities in public reporting of assessment results and accountability systems?
  8. What help is available for including students with disabilities in other types of assessments?

1. Which state assessments are required for students with disabilities?

State-required academic assessments include:

  • Academic content tests of reading/language arts, mathematics, and science that are required by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and are used for accountability.  
  • Additional tests required by the state, such as those for other content areas (e.g., social studies), college entrance, interim, or benchmark assessments.

English learners with disabilities also are required to take English language proficiency (ELP) assessments, or in the case of English learners with the most significant cognitive disabilities, alternate ELP assessments (Alt-ELP).

Knowing basic information about state-required academic assessments will help you do four things:

  • Collaborate with your assessment division as decisions are made about assessments and accommodations;
  • Create assessment-related professional development materials for IEP team members and other educators;
  • Provide information to parents and students about state-required assessments;
  • Work with state curriculum and instructional staff, as well as accountability staff, on the inclusion of students with disabilities in assessments.

Resources to Check:

2. Why are state assessments important?

State assessments provide valuable data to many stakeholders, including educators, policymakers, families, and students. All students, regardless of ability, race, ethnicity, or other characteristics, CAN and should be included in state-required assessments. These assessments provide important information on the academic progress of students and promote improved educational services for them. In the past, students with disabilities and English learners (including those with disabilities) were routinely excluded from state testing. As a result, they were less likely to receive the attention they deserved to ensure that they had access to the general education grade-level curriculum.

Resources to Check:

3. Why should students with disabilities participate in state academic content assessments, and what laws require their participation?

Students with disabilities, English learners, and English learners with disabilities participate in state and districtwide general assessments of academic content so that education systems have a measure of whether their programs are helping them succeed. Some students with the most significant cognitive disabilities who are unable to show what they know and can do on the general assessment, even with accommodations, take an alternate assessment.

According to regulations for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA):

A State must ensure that all children with disabilities are included in all general State and district-wide assessment programs, including assessments described under section 1111 of the ESEA, 20 U.S.C. 6311, with appropriate accommodations and alternate assessments, if necessary, as indicated in their respective IEPs. (Sec. 300.160(a)).

Three school-age students sitting on a classroom floor.

IDEA requires participation in any state or districtwide assessment administrations, including state academic content assessments used for accountability (i.e., reading/language arts, math, science) and state assessments of other content areas (e.g., social studies), as well as other types of tests that are administered district-wide in school districts (e.g., interims, benchmarks).

Participation of students with disabilities in state assessments used for accountability is reaffirmed by Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), known as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). These state assessments measure student achievement of grade-level academic content standards in reading and mathematics each year in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, and in science once in each grade band 3-5, 6-8, and high school.

State assessment scores show how well students have learned the knowledge and skills contained in the standards for their grade-level. Aggregated scores show how well schools and districts are helping all students with their learning. Disaggregated scores for students with disabilities and English learners show how well educational programs are helping these students with their learning. Assessments indicate, in part:

  • How successful schools, districts, and educational programs are in including students in standards-based education
  • How successful instructional strategies are in helping students to achieve at high levels
  • What specific curriculum and instructional areas need improvement for particular groups of students

English learners with disabilities are also required by IDEA and ESEA to participate in English language proficiency (ELP) assessments.

The question is not whether students with disabilities will participate in assessments, but rather how they will participate. For students who receive special education services, the decision about how they participate is made by the Individualized Education Program (IEP) team. For other students with disabilities who have a 504 plan, schools vary in the process used to make this decision. The IEP team for an English learner with disabilities should include an English language specialist.

Resources to Check:

4. What are alternate assessments, and for which students are they appropriate?

Students with significant cognitive disabilities are included in the state’s elementary and secondary education (ESEA) accountability system by participating in the state’s alternate assessments. State alternate content assessments are called alternate assessments based on alternate academic achievement standards (AA-AAAS).

Alternate assessments were initially required by the 1997 reauthorization of IDEA. In 2015, the reauthorization of ESEA confirmed that the AA-AAAS is for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities, as defined in state guidelines. Up to 1.0% of the total tested state student population in a subject area may participate in the AA-AAAS. All states have an AA-AAAS in reading/language arts, mathematics, and science. Some states also have an AA-AAAS for other subject areas, such as social studies. The name of the AA-AAAS may be different in each state.

To meet federal accountability requirements, the AA-AAAS must be aligned to grade-level academic content in each subject area. The achievement of grade-level content by students with significant cognitive disabilities is different from the achievement of other students. Students with significant cognitive disabilities are able to learn academic content that is clearly linked to grade-level content but at reduced complexity, breadth, and depth. All students, including students with the most significant cognitive disabilities who participate in the AA-AAAS, should be prepared appropriately for postsecondary education, training, work, or military service after high school. States’ alternate achievement standards must be such that students who meet the standards are on track to pursue postsecondary education or competitive integrated employment, as defined in the 2014 Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA).

The alternate English language proficiency assessment (Alt-ELP) is for English learners with the most significant cognitive disabilities. Nearly all states have Alt-ELP assessments—though a few states are still in the process of developing one. To meet federal accountability requirements, the Alt-ELP must be aligned to ELP standards, which are aligned to states’ academic content standards. The Alt-ELP provides an opportunity for state directors to collaborate with colleagues within the state agency by leading conversations about how to ensure that English learners with the most significant cognitive disabilities have access to curriculum and instruction aligned with the state’s academic content standards as well as participate in the state Alt-ELP.

Resources to Check:

 

5. What role do accommodations have in state testing, and how should the IEP team make decisions about assessment accommodations?

An elementary student wearing headphones taking an online assessment using the speech-to-text accommodation.

Accommodations are cited in both the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) as a way to help ensure that students with disabilities, English learners, and English learners with disabilities have access to grade-level academic standards-based instruction and assessments. Individualized education program (IEP) teams also make individualized decisions about the accommodations that meet individual student needs. These teams typically require training and other supports to help them make appropriate accommodations decisions.

Many states have accessibility policies for state assessments that have three levels. Generally, these three levels of supports are:

  1. Features that are Universal, which might include use of a highlighter for example, are available to all test takers. 
  2. Features that are Designated, which might include color contrast for example, are available to all students for whom an adult or team of adults has indicated a need for them. 
  3. Accommodations, which might include braille for example, are provided only to students with disabilities and in some cases to English learners.

Policies for assessment accommodations and other accessibility supports are state-determined, and often vary by content area. The terminology used for these levels, and the specific features included in each tier, may differ by state and by assessment. Thus, it is important for IEP team members to know their state policies. IEP team members should be provided training in the state’s policies so that decisions they make about assessment accommodations and other accessibility supports are appropriate and consistent with state policies.

Assessments that are designed and developed using the principals of universal design of assessment (UDA) can reduce the need for the use of accommodations. UDA principles are similar to those of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) but focus specifically on assessments.

Resources to Check:

6. What special considerations are there for testing English learners with disabilities using English Language Proficiency (ELP) assessments?

Students with disabilities who are also English learners are required to take English language proficiency (ELP assessments). ELP assessments are used to measure students’ reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills defined in states’ English language proficiency standards. ELP assessments have two main purposes:

  • For districts or schools to help identify English learners who are eligible for services and to determine students who can exit from services.
  • For states to annually track the English proficiency of students already identified as English learners, and to include the percentage of English learners reaching proficiency each year for ESEA accountability.

State assessments measure whether English learners attain English proficiency, so they have the opportunity to meet the same challenging content achievement standards as their peers. Most English learners with disabilities will take the general ELP assessment. Some may use accessibility features or accommodations to access the test. Some English learners with the most significant cognitive disabilities may participate in an alternate assessment of English language proficiency (Alt-ELP).

Resources to Check:

7. What are the requirements and best practice for including students with disabilities in public reporting of assessment results and accountability systems?

A middle school age child smiling. He has his backpack over one shoulder and is standing in a school hallway.

Public reporting of assessment results is one kind of accountability for educational results. Both the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) require that assessment results be publicly reported. Disaggregating assessment data for students with disabilities and English learners provides one level of accountability for their results. If numbers are sufficient, reporting disaggregated results for English learners with disabilities and for students who participate in the alternate assessment based on alternate academic achievement standards (AA-AAAS) is best practice.

ESEA calls for system accountability to hold schools and districts responsible for the performance of students. Students with disabilities, including English learners with disabilities and students with the most significant cognitive disabilities who participate in the AA-AAAS, should be included in federal, state, and local accountability systems. Data indicate that when excluded from accountability systems (with their aligned standards and meaningful instruction in academics and behavior), students with disabilities did not have improved outcomes.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs’ (OSEP) also has an accountability system, Results Driven Accountability (RDA). RDA monitors and supports states’ implementation of IDEA. Assessment participation and performance of students with disabilities are key components of RDA. There are 17 IDEA Part B (SPP) RDA indicators. Indicator 3 include Assessment participation and performance results.

As part of RDA, states were required to develop a State Systemic Improvement Plan (SSIP), which is Indicator 17 of the SPP. The SSIP is a comprehensive, multiyear plan that outlines a state’s strategy for improving results for children with disabilities. Each state’s SSIP focuses on a State Identified Measurable Result (SIMR) that identified outcome targets for children with disabilities. Many states specify SIMRs that use assessment data as the outcome measure. Most of these states use the state reading/language arts or mathematics assessments as the outcome measures in their SIMR, though a few states use other assessments such as interim assessments. Additionally, some states use other assessments as measures of progress toward their SIMR.

Some states and districts have educator accountability systems. These systems should include results for all students, including all students with disabilities. Special educators and teachers of English learners have unique roles and responsibilities that need to be included when the educator system is developed.

Student accountability systems hold students responsible for their own learning. Some states have graduation tests designed to ensure that students demonstrate knowledge and skills needed after high school. A few states use tests to determine whether elementary students can demonstrate literacy knowledge and skills needed to meet the state’s literacy goals and move from one grade to the next.

Resources to Check:

8. What help is available for including students with disabilities in other types of assessments?

Many districts administer interim assessments. Increasingly, states are requiring districts to use interim, benchmark, through-course, or other more frequently administered assessments. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that all students with disabilities participate in districtwide assessment administrations. Depending on the specific assessment or process used, the inclusion of all students might not have been assumed during their development. Special education directors can help when districts select these types of assessments by providing information on the extent to which each assessment under consideration was developed using processes that included students with disabilities.

State special education directors also can lead the way in making sure that all students with disabilities have the opportunity to participate in these assessment processes that accurately demonstrate their knowledge and skills. All students with disabilities includes students with the most significant cognitive disabilities who should be provided an alternate assessment or alternate assessment process.

Resources to Check:

Atrribution

All rights reserved. Any or all portions of this document may be reproduced and distributed without prior permission, provided the source is cited as:

  • Riley, C. M., Lazarus, S. S., & Thurlow, M. L. (2022). What new special education directors need to know about academic assessments. National Center on Educational Outcomes.

The Center is supported through a Cooperative Agreement (#H326G210002) with the Research to Practice Division, Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education. The Center is affiliated with the Institute on Community Integration at the College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota. Consistent with EDGAR §75.62, the contents of this report were developed under the Cooperative Agreement from the U.S. Department of Education, but do not necessarily represent the policy or opinions of the U.S. Department of Education or Offices within it. Readers should not assume endorsement by the federal government. Project Officer: David Egnor