System accountability should be for everyone in the system. Most students with disabilities spend most of their time in the general education classroom, and are taught by regular classroom teachers. No matter where students receive instruction, all students with disabilities should have access to, and make progress in, the general education curriculum. Thus, all students with disabilities should be included in the measurement of progress toward standards.
Unintended negative consequences can be avoided when all students are included in accountability measures. For example, research has shown that when special education students are excluded from school accountability measures, the rates of referral of students to special education increase dramatically. Other benefits also come from including students with disabilities in accountability systems. Educators come to realize that these students count, just like all other students. Educators are more likely to increase their expectations of students with disabilities.
Business and postsecondary education communities have argued for the high school diploma to mean that students have specific knowledge and skills. There are a variety of ways to ensure that earning a diploma is meaningful. When student accountability is based on an exam, as well as coursework requirements, it is critical that the assessment be appropriate for all students. This means that the test must be developed to be universally accessible. The test must also allow needed accommodations. Finally, the test must provide students with a variety of ways to demonstrate that they have the needed knowledge and skills.
There are potential unintended and negative consequences of student accountability measures. It is important to ensure that all students have the opportunity to learn before they are held accountable for achieving those standards. Thus, in many states, there are discussions about the importance of holding the system accountable for all students prior to holding the students accountable.
Accountability provisions in the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), reauthorized in 2001 as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), call for system accountability to hold schools and districts responsible for the performance of students. Performance must be reported by subgroup, including students with disabilities, to ensure that all students meet the state-defined performance criteria to be proficient. If any subgroup in a school does not make "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) toward "proficiency," the school is labeled "in need of improvement." Consequences are applied after a second year of failure to meet AYP.
Most ESEA models are considered status models. Status models compare how a cohort of students in a certain grade one year compares with the cohort in the same grade the following year. Status models are required by ESEA unless the state has received a flexibility waiver made available to states in 2011. The flexibility from specific AYP requirements of ESEA may be obtained if the state's plans designed to improve educational outcomes for all students, close achievement gaps, increase equity, improve the quality of instruction, and set up an educator effectiveness system are approved by the U.S. Department of Education after peer review. Full details of the provisions of ESEA and flexibility can be found on the website: http://www.ed.gov/esea.
Accountability provisions in the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) call for states to establish targets for 20 indicators for students 6-21 years old (Part B). One of these indicators is Assessment (Indicator 3). State targets were set in State Performance Plans (SPPs) submitted with 2004-2005 assessment data in February 2006. Performance on the indicators is reported each year in an Annual Performance Report (APR). For indicator 3, part B, states report on the percentage of districts meeting AYP, the participation rate for students with disabilities in assessment, and their proficiency rate on these assessments. State success on this indicator, and the others included in the APRs, determines whether a state is placed into one of four designations: (a) Meets the requirements and purposes of IDEA, (b) Needs assistance in implementing the requirements of IDEA, (c) Needs intervention in implementing the requirements of IDEA, or (d) Needs substantial intervention in implementing the requirements of IDEA.
A possible alternative to "status" accountability, which compares different groups of students, is growth models. A common feature of the growth models is that they track the achievement of individual students from year to year. These models reflect the belief that the success of schools can be shown through improved student performance over time. Some growth models are clear and easy to understand, while others are more complex. Several states piloted growth models under ESEA. These data are being used to give schools credit for improved student performance over time.
Status models and growth models both have strengths and limitations. For example, resources to improve instruction and access to the curriculum may not be provided to some schools and students who need them because the growth data make it look as though a school has met AYP even though many students are low performing. Another unintended consequence of some types of growth models is lowered expectations for students with disabilities. Expectations are decreased due to reliance on past performance to predict or estimate future performance. Growth measures used for accountability should have strong foundations. The potential for negative consequences from using growth for accountability is decreased if a growth model: (a) carefully defines what is meant when using the term growth model, (b) retains a standards-based approach, (c) maintains grade-level instruction, (d) includes all students, and (e) ensures that all student groups are visible.