Assessment and Students with Disabilities: Issues and Challenges with Educational Reform

By Bowen, Sandra K.; Rude, Harvey A. | Rural Special Education Quarterly, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Assessment and Students with Disabilities: Issues and Challenges with Educational Reform

Bowen, Sandra K., Rude, Harvey A., Rural Special Education Quarterly


The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act seeks to correct achievement gaps that are most prevalent among students in specific subgroups including those with disabilities, linguistic and cultural diversity, and representing economic disadvantage. The reauthorization of federal special education legislation through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA) has moved to align the accountability for learners with disabilities with the guiding principles of NCLB. This paper examines the challenges of adequately assessing these learners in a manner that preserves the individualized nature of educational supports and services while focusing on the desired learning and results that are expected by education policy through accountability mandates. In this lens of increased scrutiny for results accountability, the issues of eligibility for services, summary of performance, and transition services are analyzed and aligned with these policy expectations with particular consideration given to rural impact. The emerging focus on early intervening services and assessing learners identified as at risk for school failure promotes practices that are aligned with academic and behavioral success for all learners. A summary of recommendations is provided on assessment related factors for rural school teachers and administrators.

The momentum for educational reform changes practice in schools. Two recent federal mandates, No Child Left Behind (NCLB, 2001) and The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA, 2004) have strongly influenced both general education and special education and have drastically changed the way educators and the general public look at outcomes for children with special needs. While intended for two separate populations, NCLB and IDEIA have similar and often overlapping principles, which are driving assessment procedures for students in public schools. In fact, IDEIA references concepts in NCLB in a variety of different ways. This paper will describe some of the overlapping themes between NCLB and IDEIA and specifically address the issue of assessment under these two legislative guidelines and then review the implications for practice in rural schools.

NCLB and IDEIA Alignment

The No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law in January of 2002. This federal mandate was a major revision to the Elementary and secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965. This law significantly challenged the status quo of public schools and established the US Department of Education as a responsible party for increasing student achievement in public schools. Turnbull (2005) identified 6 primary principles of NCLB: accountability, highly qualified teachers, scientifically based instruction, local flexibility, safe schools, and parent participation and choice.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was reauthorized in 2004 with the intent of improving the existing legislation with a primary purpose of aligning the provisions of IDEIA with NCLB. While the individual provisions of IDEIA are different than NCLB, the overall goal of the two is similar. The partnership of NCLB and IDEIA provide the opportunity for successful academic achievement for students with disabilities by implementing the systemic changes mandated by NCLB through the individual lens of the IEP (Individualized Education Plan) as regulated by IDEIA.

Access to the General Curriculum in the Regular Classroom

The passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (PL 94-142) in 1975 opened the door for students with disabilities to attend the same neighborhood school as their nondisabled peers. While this was a significant milestone in special education history since it opened the door to the school for all learners, it did little to guarantee any level of quality education. The focus of special education was on the physical placement of the child, not the curriculum or content to be learned. In 1997, with the passage of the IDEA amendments school districts were required to provide access to general education for students with disabilities. The goal of this legislative advance was to ensure that more than the physical location of the student be considered. The intent was to provide students with disabilities with opportunities to engage in a challenging curriculum and be part of the standards-based and accountability reform mandates. IDEA '97 defined the general curriculum "as referring to the same curriculum as for nondisabled children and note that it is expected that disabled students' educational programs will be derived from this general curriculum to the maximum extent appropriate to the needs of the child" (Agran, Alper, & Wehmeyer, 2002, p. 123).

Historically, many schools and teachers have not expected students with disabilities to meet the same gradelevel requirements as nondisabled students. While there is general consensus that all students should have access to the general curriculum, the prevailing viewpoints hold that students with severe disabilities should not be held to the same high-standards. It has been argued that focusing on a set curriculum and linking it to state high-stakes assessments narrows the curriculum to include only core academic content thus excluding other curriculum areas that may be as important to students with severe disabilities. The question remains, do educators and the general public truly believe that all children are capable of learning and therefore commit to higher expectations for all students? Agran et al. (2002) surveyed teachers in severe disabilities in one state regarding type and degree of access students with severe disabilities had to the general education curriculum. Their findings reported that although a majority indicated that the students were participating in general education they "did not believe that access to the general curriculum [was] appropriate for students with severe disabilities" (p. 129). The authors are quick to assure that this does not necessarily mean that the teachers did not have high expectations for the students, but that they did not equate the high expectations with access to the general education curriculum.

The concept of providing access to the general education curriculum is so important to the new IDEA amendments that the IEP requires a statement of how a child's disability affects his or her involvement and progress in the general education curriculum. Certainly these requirements have raised expectations for the performance of students with disabilities and have changed the way educators now view inclusive environments. The ideas promoted in the Education for All Handicapped Children Act have been strengthened and expanded from more than just physical placement in a classroom to active involvement and progress in the curriculum.

Accountability for Students with Disabilities

Since the 1997 amendments, The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) has required students with disabilities to participate in regular assessments to measure progress on their Individual Education Plan (IEP) goals. When regular assessments cannot be used, even with accommodations, state-approved alternative assessment, aligned with standards, may be used. The intent of this is to ensure that progress on IEP goals is meeting the highest expectations.

No Child Left Behind has as its basic tenet accountability of schools for student achievement, particularly in math and science. NCLB proponents argue that all children, including those with disabilities, be held accountable to high outcomes and that the academic potential of students with disabilities be as high of a priority as typically developing students. Some have even argued that NCLB "has removed the final barrier to full participation in the classroom, completing the effort begun 30 years ago with the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)" (U.S. Department of Education, 2005). Notwithstanding the controversy that surrounds NCLB, it has been seen as "the most significant piece of federal education legislation in history" (Yell, Katsiyannas, & Shiner, 2006, p. 32).

A central tenet of two pieces of legislation is the focus on assessment as a major component of special education programs that directly impact teaching practices. There is a high expectation from both IDEA 2004 and NCLB that students with disabilities will participate in regular assessments with their typically developing peers and that schools will show adequate progress for all students. However, students with disabilities may present a challenge for districts as they attempt to implement assessment guidelines under NCLB in connection with the legal requirements of IDEIA. In examining assessment for students with disabilities, there are several prevalent issues for educators, students and their families that require clarification.

The terms large-scale assessment and high-stakes testing are often used interchangeably. Ysseldyke et al. (2004) argue that large-scale assessments have high-stakes consequences, even unintended consequences, related to individual students or a school system. Some of the highstake consequences include grade-retention/promotion, educational/vocational tracking, graduation requirements, and ultimately quality of life once transitioned from school. When implementing large scale assessment policies for students with disabilities, schools must consider the life-time effects of decisions made for students with disabilities and their families.

Ysseldyke et al. (2004) reviewed perceived and empirical positive and negative consequences of highstakes testing from newspaper headlines and published research. They outlined the desired outcomes of large scale assessments for students with disabilities. The first expectation of large scale assessment is that all students, even those with disabilities, will participate in the state assessments. A second and related expected result is that students will have improved academic performance as measured by the large scale assessments. There is some evidence from the research to support improved participation and performance of students with disabilities in large scale assessments. Another expected result of participation in large scale assessments is that teachers will have higher academic expectations for students with disabilities and that through instructional changes students will have improved instruction. A key finding from this report states, " If you begin with high expectations, students will achieve more; this provides the underlying framework for greater access to the general education curriculum through enhanced awareness of appropriate accommodations to access that curriculum." (p. 81). Providing students with disabilities access to the general education curriculum is a very important aspect and concern for supporters and opponents of NCLB and large scale testing. Clearly, in order for students with disabilities to fully participate in large scale assessments, they must have greater opportunities to learn the content in the general education curriculum and they must have appropriate accommodations to fully participate in the general education curriculum. These two challenges are seen as critical for students to show adequate yearly progress as measured by large scale assessments and by IEP goals.

Assessment Accommodations

While the practice of assessment accommodations is widely accepted, it is also controversial (Sireci, Scarpati, & Shuhong, 2005). Part of the controversy may stem from a misinterpretation by general education teachers and the general public concerning the purpose and nature of accommodations. Assessment accommodations are changes made in the assessment presentation or in the student's response. Examples of accommodations include changes in format, response, setting, timing, or scheduling (Elliott, McKevitt, & Kettler, 2002). It is important to assure that the accommodations do not significantly alter what the test measures or the comparability of scores. It is also critical that IEP teams look carefully at the accommodations a student with disabilities needs in order to be successful in the general education setting, including assessment of academic content. The key to success in this area is selecting the most appropriate accommodations. Rieck and DuggerWadsworth (2005) stated, "Appropriate accommodation strategies should be individualized to meet the exceptional learner's needs and not genetically applied to all special education students" (p. 108). Weinfeld, BarnesRobinson, Jewler, and Roffman- Shevitz (2005) identified guiding principles for selecting and implementing appropriate accommodations. Not all students will need accommodations, but for those who do, accommodations ensure that the student's knowledge, skill or ability is being measured and not the student's disability. As some have stated, the intent of accommodations is to "level the playing field" for students with disabilities (WashburnMoses, 2003).

Some have questioned the use of accommodations in academic settings for large-scale assessment and for high school graduation exit examinations. Others have raised questions about the types of accommodations used and the appropriateness of each. Part of this confusion lies in how states determine if and when accommodations are allowed. Thurlow, Lazarus, Thompson, and Morse (2005) reported that accommodation policies, including decision making criteria, differ widely by state and that allowable accommodations may be used for selected groups of students or the entire student population. Fuchs and Fuchs (2001 ) indicated that "some states prohibit the very accommodations other states recommend" (p. 177). Furthermore, depending on the accommodations used, states have varying policies and procedures for summarizing and reporting the accommodations and the assessment scores.

An alarming consideration regarding the use of accommodations is that there is a lack of solid evidence regarding the effectiveness of assessment accommodations for students with disabilities. While there is research regarding accommodations in assessment procedures for students with disabilities the results are inconsistent and inadequate to determine if assessment accommodations are beneficial for students with disabilities (Fletcher et al., 2006; Fuchs & Fuchs, 200; Sireci, Scarpati & Shuhong, 2005; Thurlow et al., 2005). The accommodation most widely reported in the literature is extended time. However, even this accommodation, accepted by most states as an allowable assessment accommodation has conflicting research results (Thurlow et al., 2005).

When discussing the appropriateness of accommodations, it is worth mentioning that the general public, including general education teachers and students, often express concerns regarding the use of accommodations for students with disabilities. One of the main concerns is the fairness of the assessment procedures (Polloway, Epstein, & Bursuck, 2003). Some states (Colorado, Kansans, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Wyoming) have supported the use of accommodations for all students, not only those with disabilities (Thurlow et al., 2005). This way of thinking may provide positive outcomes for all students, not only those with disabilities and may allow a mechanism for all students to demonstrate new learning.

While the use of accommodations is a commonly accepted and even federally mandated practice, the actual effectiveness of individual accommodations needs to be researched more extensively. The overall use of accommodations for students with disabilities and for the general population of students in public schools needs to be re-evaluated in terms of fairness for all students. Finally, consistency in accommodations use, criterion, and reporting across states should be investigated as a more accurate representation of what assessment data means for adequate yearly progress.

Alternative Assessment Guidelines

For many years students with moderate or severe disabilities were often excluded from large-scale assessment. However, with the passage of IDEA 97, all students are to be held accountable for academic progress. This guideline has even been made stronger with the requirements for NCLB and IDEIA 2004. For students who are unable to completely or accurately demonstrate knowledge or skills on a particular assessment, even with accommodations, states must develop an alternative assessment. These assessments are typically designed for students with severe or multiple disabilities who need an entirely different assessment to demonstrate knowledge or skill. Reflecting the 2003 regulation, the number of proficient and advanced scores based on the alternate achievement standards may not exceed 1 percent of all students in the grades tested. Recently, the regulations have been altered to allow a greater percentage of students to participate in alternative assessments. This number should not exceed 2-3% of the students with the most severe disabilities. States may develop alternate assessments based one of two choices; grade-level standards for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities or alternate standards. The process of setting achievement standards is required for both choices and standards for alternate assessments based on grade-level standards must be equivalent to those on the general assessment. However, it is important to note that "Alternative assessments based on alternate achievement standards must be aligned with a state's academic standards, promote access to die general curriculum, and reflect professional judgment of the highest achievement standards possible" (Flowers, Browder, & AhlgrimDelzell, 2006, p. 202).

Individualized Education Program (IEP) teams generally determine if students should take an alternative assessment, occasionally based on state imposed criteria. However, recent research suggests that how this decision is made varies greatly from state to state (McLaughlin & Thurlow, 2003; Thurlow et al., 2005). It is critical that IEP teams carefully consider the implications of choosing an alternative assessment as it may lead to an alternative diploma or certificate and may influence the kinds of jobs and postsecondary options available to the student.

In addition to alternative assessments some states also allow for additional testing options such as out-of-level testing (taking an assessment designated for a lower grade level than the one in which the student is receiving instruction) or partial participation (taking sections of an assessment without requiring the student to complete the entire assessment) (Thurlow et al., 2005). Further research needs to be completed in this area to determine if these testing options clearly demonstrate student academic growth and educational integrity.

Adequate Yearly Progress

A key requirement of NCLB is the idea of Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). This aspect of accountability is one of the most critical and perhaps one of the most complicated components of NCLB. AYP is defined by states for districts and individual schools to measure student progress and to reach a level of proficiency on state standards for each of the students in the identified academic areas. This definition is based on expectations for growth in student achievement "that is continuous and substantial" (Paige, 2002). AYP will demonstrate growth for every child, but federal mandates target reporting for specific subgroups in the population, including students with disabilities who have an IEP. Other targeted subgroups include major ethnic/racial groups, economically disadvantaged students, and limited English proficient (LEP) students. To demonstrate AYP schools must report all student results by subgroup. Schools need to consider the number of students in a subgroup during reporting, so as to have a sufficient size to produce statistically reliable results. This may present some difficulties for calculating AYP for students with disabilities because when there are insufficient numbers of students within a subgroup, the scores do not need to be disaggregated. This may be a particular area of concern for rural school districts in general, but particularly when reporting on low-incidence disabilities within the rural school district.

Another area of concern for demonstrating adequate yearly progress for students with disabilities is the use and reporting of accommodations and alternative assessments. As previously described, the extent of a student's participation in state wide assessments and the accommodations used during the assessment is determined on an individual basis for each student, following the IEP team's decision. If the IEP team determines the student cannot successfully complete the general assessment, even with accommodations, then the student may be eligible to complete an alternative assessment. IEP teams may choose to implement accommodations that are deemed nonstandard by the state's definition of approved or appropriate accommodations. When this occurs, the use of a nonstandard accommodation may invalidate a student's individual score and therefore may be need to be removed from the aggregated performance report. Furthermore, many states have not determined how to report participation of a student who participates in an alternative assessment in the final AYP report. A summary of recommending practices to be observed in providing appropriate accommodations that support access to instruction without limiting the opportunity to achieve results in provided in Table 1. These guidelines are helpful in supporting students with disabilities to be accountable for results without diminishing the standards for performance. This becomes critical in many rural communities where the number of students identified as part of various subgroups, including those with disabilities, may be too low to be held the AYP accountability mandates.

Evaluations and Eligibility Determinations

IDEA has always included specific guidelines for determining eligibility for students with disabilities. IDEIA 2004 expanded provisions for eligibility by implementing a special rule for eligibility determination, which states, "In making a determination of eligibility under paragraph (4)(A), a child shall not be determined to be a child with a disability if the determinant factor for such determination is lack of instruction in reading or math or limited English proficiency" (Wright & Wright, 2006). This special rule is intended to ensure that all students who have not received access to high-quality instruction in reading and math are inappropriately identified with a learning disability. Specifically, the regulations state that the student must have instruction in the essential components of reading outlined in NCLB; phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary development, reading fluency, including oral reading skills, and reading comprehension strategies. Furthermore, it ensures that students who are limited English proficient have sufficient time and instruction to acquire adequate English language skills. In this way, it is believed that there will be a reduction in misdiagnosis and overrepresentation of minority students in special education. School districts are now required to provide explicit and systematic instruction in the essential components of reading through scientifically-based methods and materials.

A second and equally important change in eligibility requirement under IDEA 2004 is the elimination of the requirement to document a "severe discrepancy" between intellectual ability and academic achievement, in order to be identified as having a Specific Learning Disability (SLD). "This 'discrepancy' requirement, which has been part of federal special education regulations since 1977, has been under attack for some time. Critics charge that, by using this approach to identifying SLD, students must fail for long periods of time before they will show sufficiently large deficits in academic achievement to satisfy the "severe discrepancy" requirement and begin receiving special education services. Equally important was the growing evidence that such a requirement was particularly problematic for students living in poverty, students of culturally different backgrounds, or those whose native language was not English (Cordelia, 2006). It has been argued that the "discrepancy" approach resulted in late identification and misidentifkation of students with learning disabilities. While not universally embraced nor well understood, the notion of options within the individualized assessment practices remain:

Schools must continue to use a variety of assessment tools and strategies to document and verify eligibility for students with disabilities under IDEA 2006, including information provided by the parents. However, many schools are beginning to use Response to Intervention (RTI) as the primary means of identifying students who have disabilities as well as monitoring students who may be at risk. Methods employed in this process include a multitiered approach where students demonstrating difficulties are provided with instructional assistance within general education that increases in intensity over time and includes ongoing evaluation of academic progress (Ahearn, 2003).

Vaughn, Gersten, and Chard (2000) examined research on higher-order processing and problemsolving, reading comprehension, written expression, and grouping practices associated with improved outcomes in reading. Principles identified include control of task difficulty, instruction in small interactive groups, and directed response questioning. More information regarding the effectiveness of RTI for all populations is needed.

Over-identification and Disproportionality

Following nationwide concern over identification and disproportionality of minority students in special education, a new provision under IDEIA 2004 requires states to develop policies and procedures to prevent inappropriate identification of students with disabilities and to avoid and examine disproportionate representation by race and ethnicity. Schools will be collecting data to show the number of students in special education programs by race and ethnicity for each of the disability categories. Furthermore, if states identify a disproportionate number of students they must follow through with procedures for analyzing and reporting the findings. This provision is linked to the 2004 IDEA Special Rule for eligibility determination, that a disability cannot be identified if the determining factor is a lack of instruction in reading or math or limited English proficiency (Wright & Wright, 2006). While ensuring access to high-quality instruction, it also ensures that students who are limited English proficient have sufficient time and instruction to acquire adequate English language skills. By providing both high-quality instruction and time to learn English, it will prevent misdiagnosis and overrepresentation of minority students, particularly limited English proficient students in special education.

Summary of Performance

The typical data processes that are employed by school personnel are focused on establishing eligibility for special services and supports. This legalistic interpretation and application of these data processes leads to overemphasis on scores at points in time rather than growth over time (Moores, 2005; Roller, 2005). A practical example of these contrasts can be found in the use of pre- and post-test measures that illustrates how well students have performed. The threats to validity in reporting performance of students with disabilities in rural schools are compounded by the required adequate yearly progress measures (McLaughlin, Embler, Hernandez, & Caron, 2005). By contrast, the use of continuous measurements allows for measures of how students are doing over time rather than simply considering the annual snapshot of performance. By considering the practice of monitoring and collecting data on individual students, educators can use those data in making informed decisions about the need for additional interventions or supports.

The summary of performance requirements must include measures that assess the academic, cognitive, and functional domains in the last year of high school for individual students. This is particularly useful in considering the transition of individual learners to post secondary options such as training, employment, continuing education, and independent living where appropriate. Collins et al. (2005) investigated this phenomenon in rural communities and found a disproportionate emphasis on academic skills in comparison to functional skills. In many instances the solution to this false dichotomy is to continuously assess the academic and social skill deficits for individual learners and implement carefully selected, evidencebased interventions with fidelity. Fuchs and Fuchs (1986) found significant effect sizes when systematic progress monitoring is accompanied by graphic depiction of data and decision rules for using the progress monitoring information. The available research indicates that progress monitoring leads to improved student achievement which opens the door to greater opportunities for post-secondary success.

Transition Services

The deployment of accommodations and alternative measures to large-scale assessment practices provokes controversy in the high stakes accountability environment expected by NCLB. The expanded assessment implications from NCLB that requires participation in all large-scale statewide assessment programs and IDEIA that expects appropriate accommodations up to and including alternative assessments has created different interpretations from state education agencies. The contemporary requirement for transition services, including a specified course of study, provides the essential accommodations for students without changing the content of instruction.

Additional consideration may be given to special factors that assist students in meeting post-secondary goals including adaptive devices, assistive services, compensatory strategies, and collateral support services that enhance access to post-secondary environments. The critical importance of student input to individualize the customized plan for services is essential to making these special factors meaningful and applied by individual learners (Deci & Ryan, 2002). The importance of selfassessment as a vehicle to self-determination of a student's course of study makes the transition services relevant to future academic and functional outcomes. Too frequently the mandated transition services are ignored in favor of basic skill instruction (Muller, 2005).

The most promising solution to this challenge is to consider the special factors self-identified by individual learners that target vocational and academic priorities and subsequent transition assessments in support of these targets. The opportunity for learners with disabilities to be engaged in the self-assessment of future aspirations promotes basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness that promote natural growth tendencies (Vansteenkiste, Simons, Lens, Sheldon, & Deci, 2004). Students in rural communities are good barometers of the quality of life and outcomes that may be far removed from the frantic pace of change experienced by their urban counterparts.

Summary and Conclusions

The challenges that are highlighted from the current policy environment provide ample opportunities for positive results for students with disabilities in rural communities. The mandated provisions in the area of student assessment from the No Child Left Behind Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act suggest a variety of potential improvements. The points of leverage that emanate from these assessment related directives for teachers and administrators in rural school districts and communities include the following: (a) Assessment can be viewed as a vehicle for access to the general classroom and standards of learning in rural communities rather than a means for exclusion of individual learners; (b) The focus on accountability for all learners in rural settings impacts the necessary teaching processes/strategies that are aligned with learner needs based on assessment information; (c) The determination of appropriate accommodations and universal design for learning are essential to support full participation by students with disabilities in smaller schools that have a limited curricular choices; (d) Alternative assessments require different considerations for potential application in rural schools that may demonstrate small numbers of learners in identified subgroups such as those individuals with disabilities; (e) The issues associated with meeting AYP targets are also unique and require special considerations in school districts that do not demonstrate sufficient sub-group numbers to fit within decision rules; (f) The expanded applications of individual assessment practices can benefit learners with disabilities in rural schools by moving beyond eligibility determination to more meaningful foci on early intervening and Response to Intervention models; (g) The commitment to avoid over-identification and disproportionality remind educators in all settings to eliminate teaching disabilities first before considering the possibility of a learning disability; (h) The summary of performance expectations for assessment of cognitive, functional, and academic domains have greater relevance within the local community context; (i) Special considerations that support seamless transition practices within rural communities can assist educators in avoiding a prefabricated notions of post-secondary options; and (j) The critical importance of self-determination can't be stressed enough to make the educational outcomes, learning, and results valuable to each relevant for every learner.

The expectations to adjust state and federal policies in special education have come around every 5-10 years in the past 30. The challenge for rural special educators in this round of adjustments is to ferret out the opportunities embedded in change rather than get bowled over by the perception of impending problems. The guiding role of assessment practices serves as a compass to achieve future success.



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[Author Affiliation]

Sandra K. Bowen, Ph.D.

University of Northern Colorado

Harvey A. Rude, Ed.D.

University of Northern Colorado

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Assessment and Students with Disabilities: Issues and Challenges with Educational Reform


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    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

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