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.