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Alternate Assessments for Students with Disabilities

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. Why provide alternate assessments?
  2. Who should participate in alternate assessments?
  3. What are some sample participation guidelines for alternate assessments?
  4. What do alternate assessments look like?
  5. What should be included in an alternate assessment?
  6. How should alternate assessments be incorporated into the accountability system?
  7. When were alternate assessments first developed?

 

1. Why provide alternate assessments?

Alternate assessments are used to ensure educational accountability for all students with disabilities. When students are excluded from the state assessment, the reporting of test results is incomplete and cannot be considered when decisions are made about how to improve programs. Also, the excluded students may be denied educational opportunities available to other students.

 

2. Who should participate in alternate assessments?

In general, alternate assessment participants are those students with disabilities who are unable to participate in regular assessments even with accommodations. Some of these students may require alternate assessments aligned to grade-level content that is based on grade-level achievement standards (AA-GLAS). That means that the AA-GLAS measures the same content and the same definition of proficiency as the general assessment.

Other students may have significant cognitive disabilities and can be assessed using alternate formats to measure achievement in the grade-level content, but based on alternate achievement standards that define proficiency differently from the general assessment, called alternate assessments on alternate achievement standards (AA-AAS).

Some states also offer an alternate assessments based on modified academic achievement standards (AA-MAS). for a small group of students whose disability has prevented them from achieving grade-level proficiency and who likely will not reach grade-level achievement in the same timeframe as other students. Many states that offer this option are in the process of phasing it out.

 

3. What are some sample participation guidelines for alternate assessments?

Guidelines for AA-AAS might include the following criteria:

A student with a significant cognitive disability who:

  • requires substantial modifications, adaptations, or supports to meaningfully access the grade-level content,
  • requires intensive individualized instruction in order to acquire and generalize knowledge, and
  •  is unable to demonstrate achievement of academic content standards on a paper and pencil test, even with accommodations.

Guidelines for AA-MAS might include the following criteria:

A student with a disability who:

  • is learning grade-level content, but whose previous performance on multiple measures indicates that the student is unlikely to reach grade level proficiency within the school year covered by the Individualized Education Program (IEP), and
  • has standards-based IEP goals that are based on grade level content standards.

Guidelines for AA-GLAS might include the following criteria:

A student with a disability who:

  • requires accommodations that are not available on the general assessment to demonstrate skill and knowledge on the grade-level content and grade-level achievement standards, and
  • demonstrates achievement in different formats or contexts than are provided by the general assessment.

 

4. What do alternate assessments look like?

The National Alternate Assessment Center has proposed a typology for AA-AAS that describes current practice, and represents a starting point for building a shared vocabulary for stakeholders to describe and evaluate AA-AAS approaches. The AA-AAS approach types proposed are portfolios, rating scales, and item-based tests:

  1. Portfolios are a collection of student work (including, but not limited to, worksheets, student-produced products, videos, pictures, or data sheets) that measure a limited number of benchmarks or objectives (usually two to six per content area). Tasks and activities are teacher-designed or modified. Portfolios may be unstructured, or relatively structured with fixed protocols for the collection of evidence.
  2. On rating scales, teachers rate student performance on a relatively long pre-scripted list of skills based on classroom observation. Evidence may or may not be required.
  3. Item-based tests consist of pre-scripted test items that students respond to in a one-on-one test administration setting. Items may include one or a combination of the following: performance tasks, writing prompts, constructed-response items, or multiple-choice items.

Most states that offer an alternate assessment based on modified achievement standards (AA-MAS) have developed multiple choice tests.

There are very few states that have developed alternate assessments based on grade-level achievement standards (AA-GLAS). It is technically challenging to develop an alternate format test that is comparable to the general assessment. The examples currently available include performance assessments with both evidence of student achievement and jury review of the evidence, and a collection of evidence submitted to independent scorers.

 

5. What should be included in an alternate assessment?

All assessments for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) accountability purposes should measure student achievement on the grade-level content. How these assessments reflect the depth and breadth of the grade-level content depends on whether the alternate assessment is based on alternate, modified, or grade-level achievement standards.

Alternate assessments based on alternate achievement standards (AA-AAS) must assess student achievement on the grade-level content. In states with checklists and performance tasks, stakeholders typically have prioritized content to be covered for students with significant cognitive disabilities. States that use portfolio or body of evidence approaches may permit IEP teams to select a limited number of grade-level content standards and benchmarks to assess; or the state may require specific content standards or benchmarks for each tested grade. In portfolio or body-of-evidence states that require specific content coverage, stakeholders have generally prioritized specific content for that purpose.

Alternate assessments based on modified achievement standards (AA-MAS) assess student achievement of modified academic achievement standards. Students who participate in this assessment option must have standards-based IEPs and receive instruction based on grade-level content standards. This is an optional assessment that not all states offer--and many states will be phasing it out by 2014. Many states that had earlier identified one set of prioritized content standards across all grade levels for their alternate assessment based on modified achievement standards now require grade-level content alignment. This reflects ESEA regulations and guidance requirements that all assessments must be aligned to the grade-level definitions of content for the enrolled grade of the student being assessed.

For alternate assessments based on grade-level achievement standards (AA-GLAS), the depth and breadth of assessed content should be the same as on the general assessment in order to draw accurate inferences of student proficiency.

 

6. How should alternate assessments be incorporated into the accountability system?

States typically report accountability assessment results by achievement levels, also known as proficiency or performance levels. Terms such as "novice," "basic," "proficient," "meeting the standard," "advanced," or "exceeding the standard" may be used to describe the achievement level of each student. Achievement standards include labels for the various achievement levels, descriptions of competencies associated with each achievement level, and assessment scores ("cut scores") that differentiate among the achievement levels. Achievement standards must be defined using a rigorous process and must be aligned with academic content standards.

The December 9, 2003 ESEA regulations expanded the existing option of developing alternate assessments based on grade-level achievement standards (AA-GLAS) to also permit alternate assessments based on alternate achievement standards (AA-AAS) for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. The April 9, 2007 ESEA and IDEA regulations also gave states the option of developing alternate assessments based on modified academic achievement standards (AA-MAS). On March 15, 2011 U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan issued a press release which stated that the Department is moving away from the use of Alternate Assessments based on Modified Achievement Standards).

The process of setting achievement standards (i.e., describing various levels of proficiency and identifying cut-scores) is required for all three options.

  • The achievement standards for alternate assessments based on alternate achievement standards (AA-AAS) must be linked to grade-level content, but may cover a different depth, breadth, and complexity from the general assessment achievement standards.
  • The achievement standards for alternate assessments based on modified academic achievement standards (AA-MAS) are less difficult than the standards for the general assessment, but aligned to grade-level content.
  • Achievement standards for alternate assessments based on grade-level achievement standards (AA-GLAS) must be equivalent to those on the general assessment.

Setting alternate achievement standards is a challenging but rewarding process, and requires the active participation of test company partners, measurement experts, curriculum and special education state leadership, as well as educators, parents, and higher education standard-setting panelists.

 

7. When were alternate assessments first developed?

Alternate assessments are relatively new in most states. They were developed for students who were not included in most large-scale assessments until federal law mandated their participation. The requirement for states to develop these assessments first appeared in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments of 1997 (IDEA 97). ESEA included the results of alternate assessments in its accountability requirements, assuming them to be based on grade-level achievement standards]like the general assessment, even though they had a different format that improved accessibility. ESEA regulations clarified that more than one type of alternate assessment may be used by a state, and that students with significant cognitive disabilities participating in alternate assessments could be held to alternate achievement standards different from the general assessment (December 2003 Title I Regulations).

On April 9, 2007, an additional option was defined in Title I and IDEA regulations. These regulations allowed states to develop modified academic achievement standards that are challenging for eligible students and measure a student's mastery of grade-level content, but are less difficult than grade-level achievement standards.

For more on the history of alternate assessments, see A Brief History of Alternate Assessments Based on Alternate Achievement Standards.