Understanding Alternate Assessments:
A guide to standardized testing options for students with IEPs
By Jeffrey Hartman - @jhartman1276
Standardized testing of any kind has become a sore subject across the country. A politically-charged public debate has developed over the value and purpose of standardized assessments for all students. The complexities of assessing students with IEPs have come to light during this debate. While this is an issue of the moment, assessment options for students with IEPs have been a concern in special education circles for decades. Parents who are new to special education might not be aware of how special education law addresses the issue.
According to the IDEA, NCLB, and the ESEA, students with IEPs must be tested via state assessments whenever their peers without IEPs are tested. Disabilities do not exclude students from testing, and even students with the most severe disabilities must be tested. To the uninitiated, this might appear to be an overzealous effort by state bureaucrats who don’t understand the nuances of teaching students with special needs. While this might be true in part, the testing of students with disabilities also can be attributed to the demands of parents.
The concern over testing students with disabilities used to be exclusion. Parents and advocates feared that if students with disabilities were not tested, teachers and schools would lack accountability for them. Without assessments in place, the assumption was teachers wouldn’t be motivated to provide any kind of rigor for disabled students. Creating alternate standards and assessments of these standards became the way to combat this.
Today, students with disabilities can be tested in a variety of ways, and the choice is largely based on relative ability and IEP team decision. The basic options are to take an assessment with accommodations, or to take an alternate assessment based on alternate standards (instances of exclusion based on religious belief or psychological condition exist, but these are rare). Which option is best depends on the level of disability of the student. Each IEP team determines the appropriate testing using eligibility criteria particular to each state.
For students who follow the general education curriculum with accommodations, taking the regular state tests with accommodations is the most common option. The majority of students with IEPs go this route. Ideally, anything a student uses in class to help minimize the effect of a disability should be available as a testing accommodation. Not every possible accommodation is allowed, but typical accommodations such as extended time, testing in a separate room, and large print tend to be permitted. Test administrators can read directions to students and can read items on math and science tests, but students are almost always on their own to read everything on reading tests. Allowable accommodations vary from state to state.
In some states, an intermediate option exists. Students with IEPs are sometimes permitted to take a modified version of the test that assesses performance according to the same standards but at a lower reading or mathematics level. Such modified tests are most often offered as alternates to grade level math tests. They tend to come with a catch that makes them unattractive to administrators: they have mandated performance ceilings. That is, students who take the modified tests might automatically receive low scores before even beginning the tests. The reason for that is that these students take the modified tests because they would struggle with the grade level versions. While these modified tests might provide more useful performance data, administrators might push IEP teams to not make students eligible for them.
These modified tests aren’t available in all states. What must be available in every state is a genuine alternate assessment for students with moderate to severe disabilities. The IDEA doesn’t specify how states handle alternate assessment, but it does require their availability. NCLB and ESEA each enforce this. Most states have alternate standards for students who would benefit from instruction in life skills. IEP teams can (and should) use these standards when developing goals for such students. The alternate assessments can then be authentic tests of an appropriate curriculum and of IEP progress. Commercial alternate assessments get used in lieu of state designed tests in some states, but these typically align with any alternate standards that are in place.
IEP teams determine what testing options will be best for students. They use set criteria when reviewing eligibility for genuinely alternate --and not just modified-- testing. Most students do not qualify. For the few who do, several tiers of each alternate test exist in many states. This is intended to provide the best chance for finding a suitable assessment for students with highly disparate skill levels. A test that is too rudimentary might be insulting, while a test that is too demanding might be demoralizing. While some students function at levels that no test will appropriately fit, efforts are nevertheless made to include these students in the opportunity to be assessed.
Alternate assessments usually focus on a combination of functional academic content knowledge and skill performance. The balance is tilted towards skill performance for students who would struggle with functional academics. The tested skills are intended to come from the alternate standards-based curriculum the students follow. Again, the ideal situation is to have a match between IEPs goals in life skills domains and the areas assessed through the test. Some states have systems in place for aligning goals with alternate assessment anchors. A fair testing scenario can be achieved even for students with highly particular skill sets. Teachers and parents will receive student performance reports that can be useful for future planning and can have some merit as indicators of progress.
These assessments aren’t without drawbacks. On the schools’ end, they can be complicated to administer, sometimes involving intensive preparation of testing materials and multiple staff members to oversee test administration over what can be several days. For students, the tests should feel similar to authentic instructional activities, but some students might respond poorly to the structure of a testing situation. As mentioned, there will be some students for whom no test will authentically gauge their abilities. Even students who can adhere to the tests might not generalize their learned skills well enough to give a truly indicative performance. Parents might have apprehensions stemming from these issues and might question the value of the tests versus the consternation they cause. States and school districts have varying methods of including alternate assessment data in overall school performance on tests. Curious limits exist for how much data can be used, thus calling into question the usefulness of the assessments.
Alternate assessments are a real option for students with moderate to severe intellectual disabilities. They are a mandated way for these students to participate in meaningful assessment related to their programs. A very small portion of the student population is eligible for these assessments, but options do exist for higher functioning students who need accommodations. The current climate in American education might appear to be threatening the status of mandated assessments, and the long-term effects of the opt-out movement remain to be seen. For now, parents of students with disabilities should investigate what alternate assessment options exist per their state’s department of education. If a student must take a test, the most appropriate test should be sought.
By Jeffrey Hartman - @jhartman1276
Beginning The Paper Trail
Part of the difficulty parents face in navigating special education is coping with the barrage of paperwork. Parents aren’t alone in feeling overwhelmed. Excessive paperwork is a common complaint among teachers in the field. Special education demands layers of documentation. Understanding why along with what the documentation means can help dispel some of the confusion about special education processes.
Why Is There So Much Paperwork In Special Education?
The simple answer to this question is that the law requires it. A more thorough answer includes some explanation as to why the law requires it and why schools have had to respond to the law with such seemingly excessive protocols.
In practice, special education is a set of services meant to grant students with disabilities access to appropriate educational programming. The services are the visible part of special education. They happen to be merely one area covered by special education law. Most of the law deals with protecting the rights of students and parents. Services just happen to be one of those rights.
Special education law in America falls under the auspices of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (the IDEA). The law outlines eligibility for special education services. It requires schools to provide appropriate educational opportunities to students regardless of disability and at no cost to parents (Free and Appropriate Public Education, or FAPE). These educational opportunities must happen in the closest setting to the general education environment that is possible (the Least Restrictive Environment, or LRE). Each student must have a set of services tailored to his or her needs (an Individualized Education Program, or IEP).
To assure all of this happens, the IDEA requires schools to document every interaction with parents. The point of the documentation is to prevent schools from inadvertently or even purposely denying educational rights to anyone. Schools have mandates to follow according to the IDEA that parents never see, but most of the paperwork parents do see exists for the sake of holding schools accountable for following protocol, including the provision of services.
Schools face pressure to fulfill the mandates of the IDEA. Districts can lose funding if they fail to adequately provide services or document their efforts. Compliance with the IDEA drives much of what special education teachers and administrators do. Furthermore, mistakes made at any point in the process could result in parents filing for due process and possibly recouping compensatory education settlements. Certainly, most special education teachers and administrators are doing their jobs because they want to help students achieve, but the pressures they face are what create the paperwork parents see.
What Does The Paperwork Mean?
As parents receive document after document, special education can begin to feel like an exercise in redundancy. Parents of students who have received services for several years can become exhausted by having to review the same documents repeatedly. The documents do have purpose. Explaining them individually will help clarify this. The explanations will follow the order parents are likely to encounter the documents.
- Permission to Evaluate (PTE)
The PTE allows the parent to give the school permission to conduct an evaluation designed to determine eligibility for special education services. The school will issue a PTE under a few conditions. A student might be coming to an elementary school following Early Intervention, so the parent might request that the receiving school evaluate for services prior to admission. School staff might recommend an evaluation if a student has shown difficulty accessing the general education curriculum even with interventions. A parent might request an initial evaluation at any point in the student’s educational career. If so, just like with a student coming from Early Intervention, the request should be in writing. Schools do have to honor oral requests, but the written request is verifiable.
The school must respond following the receipt of a request. They may offer a Permission to Evaluate-Evaluation Request form prior to offering a PTE if an oral request is made. This extra form is their way of getting the request in writing. When parents receive the PTE, they can decide whether or not they grant permission and then sign and return the document. They’re essentially giving permission for a battery of assessments to be completed, possibly including psychological testing and even a medical assessment. They’ll often have questions to answer in the document about their child’s performance. They have to give permission for an Initial Evaluation. In subsequent evaluations, schools can evaluate without parental permission. Teams can even waive an evaluation should members agree that one isn’t needed to confirm eligibility.
For students with services in place, schools will issue a Permission to Reevaluate (PTRE) every two to three years (depending on the disability). This will be nearly identical to the PTE. Schools typically issue PTREs in the months prior to the expiration of the existing Evaluation Report.
- Procedural Safeguards Notice
This might be called a Notice of Parent Rights or something similar. The document is a lengthy, detailed description of student and parent rights throughout all special education protocols. Schools must provide this notice at some point during the school year. While there isn’t a specified point in the process to issue it, schools usually do so early in the process, perhaps shortly after an evaluation request.
- Psychological Questionnaires
While not specific to special education, if a student receives psychological testing as part of his or her evaluation, parents will have additional questions to answer on a series of non-district, commercial forms.
- Invitation to Participate
As the evaluation is completed, a meeting will be scheduled to review the draft Evaluation Report (whether an Initial or Reevaluation). The school will invite the parent using an Invitation to Participate form. This same form is used to invite parents to IEP meetings. The Invitation to Participate will list all parties the school intends to invite. Schools must issue an Invitation to Participate to students fourteen and over. The document must include a suggested time and place for the meeting, along with an opportunity for the parents to request any special accommodations.
The Evaluation Report and IEP may be reviewed during the same meeting, but often two separate, successive meetings are held. For the Evaluation Report review, the school will send a draft of the document for the parents to review prior to the meeting. Even if a student isn’t being evaluated in a given year, the school must issue an Invitation to Participate for the IEP meeting.
- Evaluation Report (ER)
The ER is the document that will be used to determine a student’s eligibility for special education services. It is the culmination of findings from the evaluation team, including input from teachers, therapists, parents, and the psychologist. If the findings point towards eligibility, the document will include a recommendation for special education services along with what specific type of services. Should parents disagree with the findings, they can request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE).
ERs are written every three years for most students and every two years for students with more severe disabilities. Following the Initial Evaluation, ERs are referred to as Reevaluation Reports (RRs). When psychological testing is completed as part of an evaluation, a stand-alone Psycho-Educational Evaluation Report accompanies the ER or RR. All the same information is included in the ER or RR, but the stand-alone document can be helpful in petitioning for post-secondary services. All parties involved in creating the ER or RR sign it.
- Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA)
If a student has behaviors that need to be addressed through supportive services, the school may conduct an FBA as part of the evaluation. The FBA will use an assortment of evaluations to determine the antecedents of a behavior, the target behavior itself, and the consequences of this behavior. It will then recommend a course of action for supporting the student so that the behavior doesn’t interfere with learning. The FBA can happen separately from an ER, but parents still have to give permission through a PTRE.
- Individualized Education Program (IEP)
The IEP is what most people associate with special education. It is the document that outlines the services recommended in the ER or RR (or FBA, if one exists). The IEP contains a summary of the ER or RR, a description of present levels of student performance, annual goals for performance within the student’s curriculum, specially designed instruction to support performance, and a description of any related services, such as therapies. The IEP will detail how much time the student spends outside of general education environments, along with why. IEPs for students turning fourteen and older must include a transition plan. If an FBA recommends a Positive Behavior Support Plan, that must accompany the IEP. The IEP must be created annually, but IEP review meetings can happen several times per year at team member request.
Importantly, IEPs contain a signature page that shows who participated in the meeting. Signatures do not indicate approval of the plan. After the meeting, the team typically has a few days to implement the document. The parent should have time to review it. The IEP isn’t in place until the next document is signed by the parent to show agreement.
- Notice of Recommended Educational Placement (NOREP)
Until the NOREP is signed to indicate parental agreement, any new services outlined in the IEP can’t happen. The NOREP states what level of special education service the school will provide. It is the actual statement that these services will be provided. The IEP is the description of services, but the NOREP is the authorization. Sometimes a NOREP is written to cover a single new or changed service. A special NOREP can be written for students who are no longer eligible for special education and are exiting. Should a parent wish to refuse any part of an IEP and request mediation or due process, the NOREP is where to do it.
- Medical Assistance Billing Parental Consent Form
For students who receive related services such as school-based occupational therapy or speech therapy, parents have the option to give the school permission to bill these services to the state. Parents can grant or deny this consent. Services will not be declined if a parent denies consent.
- Manifestation Determination (MD)
If a student with an IEP causes in infraction in school that would normally warrant discipline, an MD must be conducted to determine if the student’s disability was the cause of the behavior leading to the infraction. Students aren’t to be disciplined for anything attributable to their disabilities. If the MD finds the student’s behavior was not caused by the disability, typical disciplinary measures can be enacted, so long as the student’s educational program isn’t interrupted beyond predetermined degrees. If the MD finds the student’s behavior was a manifestation of his or her disability, a new FBA typically must be made. The MD review meeting is an IEP meeting for which the parent must be invited. It often leads to the issuance of a new PTRE for the creation of an FBA.
- Progress Reports
Progress towards IEP goals and objectives must be reported at whatever intervals the IEP team determines. They are usually issued with report cards, but they are not the same as report cards. Report cards show grades in courses. Progress reports show progress towards IEP goals, which are in place to support overall curricular progress. The goals are typically skills needed for curricular achievement. The grades on report cards are the curricular achievement. The exception is for students who follow alternate curricula. Their grades might mirror their IEP goals.
- Summary Of Academic Achievement And Functional Performance
This document is created at the end of special education services, typically when a student is leaving school. It lists what academic or functional competencies the student has achieved by the end of services. It also describes steps the student and parent can take for post-secondary living, along with contacts for resources.
Dealing With The Documents
The list above isn’t exhaustive. Some special circumstances demand other less common paperwork. For most students, these are the most frequently appearing documents. Many students won’t need FBAs or MDs, but any eligible student will have ERs, IEPs, and NOREPs. Parents would be wise to maintain a chronological binder of all documents, either organizing strictly by date or by document type. Keeping copies of every document is also recommended. Schools will furnish replacement copies upon request, but preserving records is best.
Special education is awash with paperwork, but an understanding of what each document is along with a good organizational method for dealing with them will benefit all involved. The IDEA is in place to protect rights, which must be remembered when the paperwork seems burdensome.