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Assessing Students With Learning Disabilities Under No Child Left Behind

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By Candace Cortiella, The Advocacy Institute

Q: Do the assessments required by NCLB also carry student "stakes" such as promotion to the next grade or receipt of a regular diploma?

A: No. States have the option to add student "stakes" to their standards and assessment systems. In some states students are required to pass one or more high school assessments as a condition of receiving a diploma. Some states require students to achieve at certain levels on assessments to be promoted to subsequent grades. However, student "stakes" are not a requirement of NCLB. While NCLB requires that all students be assessed, the emphasis of such assessments is focused on group measures, rather than on one individual student. These group measures are used to evaluate the performance of entire schools, school districts, and states. Additionally, NCLB puts a strong focus on the performance of subgroups of students that have traditionally experienced poor academic achievement, such as minority students, students with limited English proficiency, and students with disabilities.

Q: How is the testing required by NCLB handled for children with learning disabilities?

A: All students with disabilities, including those with learning disabilities, must be tested. Students with LD who receive services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), generally referred to as "special education" services, can be assessed via one of four options. Which assessment option will be used is decided by the student's Individualized Education Program (IEP) team, which includes parents.

The options for assessing students with disabilities include:

  • Regular grade-level assessment based on the state's academic content and achievement standards
  • Regular grade-level assessment with accommodations
  • Alternate assessment based on grade-level academic content and achievement standards
  • Alternate assessment based on alternate academic standards

The IEP team may not exempt a student from participating in the assessments required by NCLB.

Q: What are assessment accommodations?

A: Accommodations are changes in testing materials or procedures that ensure that an assessment measures the student's knowledge and skills rather than the student's disabilities. Accommodations are generally grouped into the following categories:

  • Presentation of the assessment, for example, repeating directions, reading aloud, or using larger answer sheet "bubbles."
  • Response to the assessment, for example, marking answers in a book, using reference aids, or pointing.
  • Setting of the assessment, for example, a study carrel, special lighting, or a separate room.
  • Timing/scheduling of the assessment, for example extended time or frequent breaks.

Decisions about assessment accommodations are to be made on the basis of individual student characteristics and needs, not on the basis of labels (such as category of disability). The accommodations that students receive on state assessments should be similar to those routinely provided during classroom assessment.

While the IEP team is charged with making the decision regarding appropriate and necessary accommodations, it is important to keep in mind that some accommodations may invalidate a test. For example, reading a test to the student may invalidate a reading test. Some states have determined certain accommodations to be "standard" or "nonstandard" and may instruct IEP teams to only select accommodations that the state has determined will not invalidate the results of a particular test or portion of a test.

Parents should be certain that they fully understand the implications of each accommodation that may be considered for their student and should be aware of any and all state policies regarding assessment accommodations for students with disabilities. Each state's department of education website is a good place to look for such information.

To locate resources in your state, including the website of your state department of education, visit and click on your state.

Candace Cortiella's work as Director of the nonprofit The Advocacy Institute focuses on improving the lives of people with learning disabilities, through public policy and other initiatives. The mother of a young adult with learning disabilities, she lives in the Washington, D.C., area.

Comments from readers

"I teach 5th grade math. Are there any studies that show the effectiveness of inclusion when a student is unable to do math, even with accomodations? In other words, when the accomodations do not work, how long should the student remain in the classroom? I have a student who gets lots of accomodations, but is still not succeeding. I have a special education teacher in my room, and we work very well together. However, we both feel that this student's needs are not being met. At what point is the student removed to a small group instruction classroom? "
"my son is 10 years old. He started kindergarten at barely age 5. 4 months into the school year during a teachers conference we were told by his teacher that he had a suspected learning disability, this teacher went on to tell my husband and me that not all kids are college material. Then started the speech therapy services and each year we have had to hear how are child has a learning disability but no proof. Teachers have asked and wondered outloud why he was receiving these special ed services but would in the end stand alongside the principle and speech pathologist. Two years ago they tested his I.Q. he passed at their disbelief We were told how he does so well at tests. This year they have requested to test his I.Q. again now i am not a well educated woman, but I do believe your I.Q. doesn't get lower as you get older. This request was made by his math teacher his grade in math is a b+ His reading,writing and social studies teacher says he doesn't receive any extra help ! the other students do not get and she doesn't get why he's being focused in on. My husband and myself have never seen what this school percieves as a learning disability yet feel are hands are tied,we feel by are sons use of an IEP the school has not helped but in an essense harmed him emotionally and mentally. My sons grades as of Friday Jan. 22nd were as followed B in Language Arts, B in Math, B in Social Studies, B in English, C in Science. all A's in P.E., Music, and Computers. My question is if my child doesn't score at a certain level on certain tests does this affect the schools ratings? And if so if he is placed in special education does that help impact the schools ratings somehow to help make the ratings better cause no matter how we go about it we can't get them to take him out of speech they want to give more special education services when many around us including many of his past and present teachers have questioned it. Every year we wait for the ball to drop ! and are extremely tired of feeling so alone. We want what is b! est and do not feel the school is doing what is best. Thank You for your time. sincerly, scared and confused mom"
"help my son is 18 and has tbi he is being kicked out of school he is in a behaver school because of his tbi if there is someone that can help with this please email me i will try anything "