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Ensuring all students with disabilities progress

New common standards projected to save money, improve instruction

By Diane Cormany

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All children deserve to learn to their greatest capacity, no matter what barriers they face. The National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) is leading educational innovation for students with significant cognitive disabilities through the National Center and State Collaborative (NCSC), a network of national centers and 19 states. The U.S. Department of Education awarded $45 million to the four-year partnership, which is being directed by senior research fellow Rachel Quenemoen and NCEO Director Martha Thurlow.

The project draws on research to develop the first fully coordinated system of formative and summative assessments based on alternate achievement standards (AA-AAS). AA-AAS are used to evaluate performance for students unable to participate in general assessments, even with accommodations. The new standards will be combined with curriculum, instruction, and professional development supports.

“We know that development of new academic assessments cannot ensure improved outcomes for students without other high quality educational practices in place,” says Quenemoen. “That is why our project will develop not only a system of assessments to accurately reflect what the students have learned, but will also build an integrated system of curriculum and instructional materials and intensive professional development and support to build capacity in our schools to teach these students well.”

What the Research Shows

Students with significant cognitive disabilities—typically some with an intellectual disability, autism, or multiple disability labels—used to be taught a separate curriculum from their peers. However, current special education funding requires the same general academic content standards for all, which is age-appropriate, engaging, and challenging. AA-AAS are based on the general grade-level content, but with achievement expectations that are appropriately challenging for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities.

Research has proven the potential of alternate assessments to improve student outcomes. “Very early on in this work, we found startling evidence that students with the most significant cognitive disabilities were able to master and apply in meaningful ways the academic skills and knowledge that we never before had tried to teach them,” Quenemoen says.

How the Research Works

NCSC is one of two U.S. Department of Education-funded programs that are developing common alternate assessments, while the University of Kansas is leading a second with13 states. The programs cooperate with one another and with the Race to the Top Common State Assessment Program consortia of 44 states, which is developing general assessments. Their collective goal is to implement common educational standards by 2014 or 2015.

NCSC includes NCEO in the University of Minnesota Institute on Community Integration; the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment; the University of Kentucky; University of North Carolina, Charlotte; and edCount. The 19 state partners are: Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Wyoming, and the Pacific Assessment Consortium (Pacific territories and neighboring independent nations). Together, these states educate 90,000 students with significant cognitive disabilities in grades 3 through 12—the targeted grades for assessments.

Representatives from each state participate in one of four work groups: assessment development, curricular and instructional tools, professional development, and validity evaluation, then share information with educators and policymakers in their home states. This summer, the professional development work group is training educators in each state who will try new curriculum and materials and introduce them to the larger education community when ready. After the initial pilot, NCSC members will run the assessment through a field test with the entire eligible population in each participating state.

“The NCSC structure, which brings together our best thinkers in the field working with practitioners at the state and local level, reflects good research as well as the practitioners’ reality,” Quenemoen explains.

What Others are Saying

Karen Denbroeder, administrator for the Florida Bureau of Exceptional Education and Student Service and a member of the management team for the NCSC assessment workgroup, says NCEO and the other NCSC researchers have been involved with alternate assessment from its beginnings. “We’ve got the best of the best. What’s critical is people who have knowledge of these populations who have been doing research in this area,” she says.

Denbroeder thinks NCSC’s biggest impact will be the development of curricular tools aligned with the standards. She hopes that the common assessment will reduce costs to states and provide consistency for significantly cognitively disabled students who move across state lines.

Leila Williams, director of alternate assessments, and Audra Ahumada, alternate assessment coordinator, with the Arizona Department of Education, agree that collaborating with other NCSC states helps the members share approaches to common challenges.

“This population is so unique in their learning, and the diversity across students within this category is unique,” Williams says. “How do we ensure we challenge and assess at the highest level but also offer students with limited abilities adequate assessment?”

Why this Research Matters

The cost of administering an AA-AAS ranges from $250 to $2,500 per student. A multi-state assessment system could substantially reduce costs, especially in states that test few students.

“When our work is complete, the system will be available to all states, regardless of their participation in the initial development funded by this grant,” Thurlow explains.

Field tests of new assessments will also provide data that has been challenging to collect because of the small number of students eligible for AA-AAS in each state, says Quenemoen.

References and Resources

Kearns, J., Klenert, H., Harrison, B., Sheppard-Jones, K., Hall, M., Jones, M. (2010). What does 'college and career ready' mean for students with significant cognitive disabilities? Lexington: University of Kentucky.

Quenemoen, R. (2008). A brief history of alternate assessments based on alternate achievement standards (Synthesis Report 68). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes.

Quenemoen, R., Kearns, J., Quenemoen, M., Flowers, C., Kleinert, H. (2010). Common misperceptions and research-based recommendations for alternate assessment based on alternate achievement standards (Synthesis Report 73). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes.

Towles-Reeves, E., Kearns, J., Kleinert, H., Kleinert, J. (2009). An analysis of the learning characteristics of students taking alternate assessments based on alternate achievement standards, Journal of Special Education, 4 (42), 241-254.

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, (2007). Learning Opportunities for Your Child Through Alternate Assessments. Washington D.C.

Revised August 2011

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