The Need for Technological Advances in Assessment Related to National Educational Reform

Article excerpt

It is somewhat daunting, during a time of educational reform and government reinvention, to make predictions about the future of assessments in special education. Nevertheless, current reconstructive activity - in general education, in special education, and in the federal role in education - stimulates speculation about changes that may occur and the benefits that can accrue from technological advances in assessment.

Interestingly, assessment of students with disabilities may be coming full circle. In the first (1904) attempt toward large-scale student assessment, Alfred Binet was commissioned by the French Minister of Public Instruction to apply his theories of intelligence testing to development of a scale for identifying children with mental retardation, so they might be given special instruction (Stanley & Hopkins, 1972, p. 326). Henry Goddard subsequently adapted the Binet scales for use at the Vineland (New Jersey) Training School. His first applications of the scale were to test for mental retardation (Goddard, 1910). But within a year, Goddard (1911) expanded use of the scales to much larger groups of "normal" children. Within a few more years - and prompted by World War I and the army's training needs - the work of Binet, Goddard, and others (e.g., Theodore Simon, Lewis M. Terman, and Arthur S. Otis) formed the basis for development of the first truly large-scale national assessment measures: the Army Alpha and Army Beta tests developed by a committee of psychologists headed by Robert M. Yerkes (Stanley & Hopkins, p. 329).

The testing movement began as an effort to identify and provide aid to students whose performance fill below suspected norms, but quickly shifted its focus to the assessment of individuals across the full range of abilities and skills. Paradoxically, as the testing movement grew, it moved farther and farther away from its origins in addressing the needs of less capable students. A concrete example is the systematic or selective exclusion of low-functioning students, including students with disabilities, from state exams and national achievement tests, such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Prior to 1990, administrations of NAEP permitted exclusion of students with disabilities ("IEP students"). NAEP, however, provided few criteria for their exclusion and relied largely on the judgment of local school administrators. This practice resulted in exclusion rates of 40%-50% in the national testing program (McGraw, Thurlow, Shriner, & Spiegel, 1992). Beginning with the 1990 NAEP, however, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) provided more explicit guidelines (U.S. Department of Education, 1990a, p. II-11) stating that students with disabilities could be excluded only if the following conditions were met:

* The student is mainstreamed less than 50 percent of the time in academic subjects and is judged incapable of participating meaningfully in the assessment; or

* The IEP team or equivalent group had determined that the student is incapable of participating meaningfully in the assessment.

These new criteria have not dramatically increased participation. In the 1990 Trial State NAEP, exclusion rates varied across states, but ranged from 33% to 87% for students with disabilities (Ysseldyke, Thurlow, McGrew, & Vanderwood, 1994).

Similar exclusion policies also exist for state-based assessments. A total of 47 states have decision rules for exempting students with disabilities, and in 38 states the IEP team can make that decision (Shriner & Thurlow, 1993). Estimates of exclusion in state assessment programs range from less than 10% to greater than 90% (Ysseldyke & Thurlow, 1993).

It may be that over the years, and particularly with the expansion of special education services during the past two decades, the responsibility for assessing students with disabilities came to be viewed as distinct and substantively different from general education assessment. …