High Stakes Testing and Expected Progress Standards for Students with Learning Disabilities: A Five-Year Study of One District. (Mini-Series)

Article excerpt

Abstract. The 1997 amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act contain provisions designed to increase the participation of children in special education in general education standards-based reform and accountability programs. The reading scores of 461 students with learning disabilities in a single district were followed across 5 years as the district implemented a state-mandated accountability plan and large scale testing program. The accountability program included grade-level proficiency standards for students and cash incentives for school staff to increase student growth. Student growth was assessed with a regression-based growth formula based on the typical progress of students across a school year at each grade. The district's performance with students with learning disabilities improved in terms of mean reading score and percent proficient in reading in elementary school across the 5 years. State standards for growth established in general education appeared to offer a challenging, but achievable, goal for special education services at the district level. However, measurement issues limit the use of growth standards at the school or individual level. The combination of large scale assessment and curriculum-based data linked to the large scale assessments offers the advantage of reliable and valid continuous progress measures for students in special education keyed to the higher expectations for performance and progress within general education.

The development of empirically based estimates of expected progress for students with learning disabilities reflects two general concerns about the status of special education over the past two decades: (a) the relatively poor academic outcomes for children with disabilities (Moody, Vaughn, Hughes, & Fisher, 2000; Schulte, Osborne, & Erchul, 1998; Wagner, 1989; Zigmond et al., 1995) and (b) the lack of accountability mechanisms that focus on outcomes rather than processes (Borich & Nance, 1987; Carnine & Granzin, this issue; McLaughlin & Warren, 1992; Shinn, 1986). These same concerns were the impetus for one of the most significant changes included in the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments of 1997, P.L. 105-17; hereafter IDEA 97)--provisions that will greatly increase the inclusion of students with disabilities in state assessments. The new legislation requires that students with disabilities be included in general statew ide and districtwide assessments (with appropriate accommodations) or take part in alternate assessments.

Although this change was spurred by concerns about the consequences of excluding students with disabilities from the widespread accountability and reform efforts underway in general education (U.S. Department of Education, 2000), very little is known about the consequences of including students with disabilities in these reform efforts (Koretz, 1997; McDonnell, McLaughlin, & Morison, 1997). Given that students with learning disabilities spend the majority of their time in general education (U.S. Department of Education, 2000), it is likely that this change will increase the participation of students with learning disabilities in statewide general education assessments and accountability systems. Because many of the accountability reforms underway include high stakes for schools, teachers, and students (Heubert & Hauser, 1999), it is likely that the standards applied to all students in these large scale assessments will become the standards for the majority of students with learning disabilities. Thus, a major criterion for evaluating the adequacy of special education services at the individual or group level for students with learning disabilities will be the extent to which these students meet the standards established for general education. It will be important that any efforts to use empirically based estimates of progress to improve special education outcomes and accountability complement rather than compete with the sweeping changes in assessment policies brought about by IDEA 97. …