Alternate Assessment FAQs (and Answers)

By Byrnes, MaryAnn | Teaching Exceptional Children, July/August 2004 | Go to article overview
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Alternate Assessment FAQs (and Answers)


Byrnes, MaryAnn, Teaching Exceptional Children


Since the passage of the 1997 Amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA '97) and the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, alternate assessments have received increasing attention. Perhaps you have been wondering what alternate assessments are, what they mean for your students, and how you will be able to meet one more new requirement. Many of your colleagues have similar questions. This article answers questions that special educators often ask.

Important Questions

Why Are Edycotors Discussing Alternative Assessments?

To strengthen equal access to the general education curriculum, IDEA '97 requires that students with disabilities participate in state and district largescale assessment programs. Education reform initiatives across the United States use these assessment programs to hold schools and districts accountable for student learning.

Passed in 2001, NCLB directs each state to develop grade level content standards and assessments linked to these standards. Each school and district will be responsible for Adequate Yearly Progress of all students-including all those with disabilities.

Both U.S. legislative mandates provide options for testing students with disabilities. Students may take tests in a standard or regular format. They may use accommodations or, they may participate through an alternate assessment.

In her recent article, WashburnMoses (2003) reviewed "What Every Special Educator Should Know About High-stakes Testing," emphasizing accommodations, test preparation, and student outcomes. She mentions alternate assessments briefly. Were you one of the teachers who wondered about this option and wanted to learn more?

What Is An Alternate Assessment?

"Alternate assessments are data collection procedures used in place of the typical assessment when students cannot take standard forms of assessment" (Ysseldyke & Olsen, 1997, p. 1). Sometimes people confuse these with "alternative" assessments, which are methods of testing students without using traditional paper-and-pencil or multiplechoice tasks. Alternate assessment is the term used in both IDEA '97 and NCLB to designate a formal assessment option for some students with disabilities.

Who Should Take an Alternate Assessment?

Some states reserve alternate assessment for students with the most severe disabilities. Other states have a broader policy, acknowledging that students with other disabilities might be best able to show what they know and can do only through an alternate assessment. NCLB limits the use of alternate assessment to students with the "most significant cognitive disabilities." Because state policies result in a wide variation of numbers of students able to participate in the standard assessment, it is likely that there will be much variation in alternate assessment participation rates, as well (Alternate Assessments, 2003). How does your state define the students who may take alternate assessment?

Who Decides if a Student Should Take an Alternate Assessment?

Individualized education program (IEP) teams must address the manner in which a student will participate in statewide and districtwide testing. If the student is unable to show what he or she knows and can do when taking the test the way it is administered to students without disabilities, the team considers whether accommodations used during instruction would facilitate participation. If not, the team recommends that the student participate through the alternate assessment process. What specific guidance or handbooks does your state distribute to help IEP teams make this decision?

What Does an Alternate Assessment Look Like?

There is no single model. NCLB asks states to develop their own alternate assessments. Currently, almost all states have alternate assessment policies in place. To find the status of your state's alternate assessment, check the Web site for your state Department of Education.

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