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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: What types of assessments should be used for the majority of students with learning disabilities?

A: Students with learning disabilities, as defined by the IDEA, are students whose learning difficulties are not primarily the result of mental retardation, emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage. Therefore, given the advantage of individualized instruction provided by trained special educators, the vast majority of students with LD should participate in the regular state assessment system either without accommodations or with appropriate accommodations that are consistent with those provided to them during regular instruction.

Under certain circumstances and depending on state policies, alternate assessments based on grade-level content and achievement standards may be appropriate for a very limited number of students with learning disabilities.

Given the limitations placed on the use of alternate assessments based on alternate standards, as well as the guidance from the U.S. Department of Education, this assessment option should not be used to assess students with learning disabilities.

Q: What is important for parents to understand when making decisions about assessment options?

A: First, parents need to understand that the determination of how their child will be assessed is an IEP team decision, and that they are full partners in that determination process. This determination should be revisited each year and for each content area that will be assessed. Blanket decisions based on disability or grade assignment should not be made.

Assessment options may differ depending on the content area being assessed. A student may need an accommodation on a reading/language arts assessment and not on a math assessment, depending upon the unique characteristics of the student. Additionally, the best assessment option may vary from year to year, based on the changing needs of the student.

One state study of IEP team accommodation decision-making practices found that assessment accommodations were often "bundled" for groups of students in an effort to "cover all bases for as many students as possible." Such practices, while seemingly well meaning, aren't in the best interest of students.

Second, parents need to understand the implications of participation in the various assessment options and should be informed of the potential consequences, if any, for their child. For example, a parent should be advised if a state will not allow a student to graduate with a regular diploma if he or she takes an alternate assessment based on alternate standards, including "out-of-level" assessments.

Q: Some students with LD and associated conditions such as Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder are covered under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (frequently referred to as "Section 504" ). What are the assessment options for these students?

A: Students covered under Section 504 are entitled to any necessary accommodation in order to participate in the assessments required by NCLB. The student's placement team should determine the accommodations needed to measure the student's academic achievement. As with students covered under the IDEA, assessment accommodation should be based on individual student need and not limited to any predetermined list of accommodations developed at the district or state level.

Q: Will test results be made available to the public?

A: Individual test scores will not be made available to the public. Only the parents and school receive the results of an individual child's tests. NCLB requires that test results be reported to the public in the form of "report cards" that show overall student achievement as well as student performance broken out by several subgroups. One of these subgroups is students with disabilities. However, schools set a minimum size for these subgroups to insure that results will not reveal identifiable information about an individual student. The performance of students covered under Section 504 is not reported as part of the subgroup for students with disabilities. © 2008 GreatSchools Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally created by Schwab Learning, formerly a program of the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation


Updated January, 2010

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 "