Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001(NCLB), all students must participate in annual state assessments, including students with learning disabilities (LD). Parents need to understand the requirements of NCLB and the important decisions they will need to make as part of their child’s educational program.

NCLB is intended to improve the academic achievement of all students and to close the achievement gap between various subgroups of students, including those with disabilities, by imposing new requirements for standards, assessments, accountability, and parental involvement.

In this article, parent advocate and special education expert Candace Cortiella addresses questions regarding the participation of students with LD in the assessments required under NCLB.

Q: What are the assessment requirements of No Child Left Behind?

A: Under NCLB each state must measure every public school student’s progress in reading and math in each of grades 3 though 8 and at least once during grades 10 through 12. Schools must tests students in science at least once in elementary, middle, and high school. These assessments must be aligned with the state academic content and achievement standards.

Q: Are the academic content and achievement standards on which these assessments are based the same in every state?

A: No. Under the previous version of this federal education law, states were required to develop or adopt content standards in mathematics and reading/language arts, and NCLB mandated the development of science standards. States’academic content standards must be “challenging” and must have the same expectations for all children.

Achievement standards must be aligned with the content standards and have at least three achievement levels, two levels of high proficiency (proficient and advanced) and a third level of achievement (basic) to describe progress by lower-achieving children.

The U.S. Department of Education does not review or approve the quality of states’ academic content and achievement standards. Therefore, academic content and achievement standards can and do vary from state to state.

Q: Are the requirements for student participation the same in every state?

A: Yes. Every state must assess all students in the grades previously described every year. These assessment scores are used to determine if schools, school districts, and states are making “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) toward bringing all students to a “proficient” or higher level of achievement in reading, math, and science by the year 2014.

Students may also be expected to participate in assessments in other subject areas, such as history, geography, and writing skills, if and when the state requires it. However, NCLB requires assessments only in the areas of reading/language arts, math, and science.

NCLB Testing Requirements
Reading/language arts and mathematics:
Grades tested: Each year, grades 3 through 8
Once during grades 10-12
Grades tested: Once during grades 3-5
Once during grades 6-9
Once during grades 10-12

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 http://nichcy.org and click on your state.

Q: What is an alternate assessment based on grade level academic content standards?

A: In some states, students can be assessed on how well they are achieving the state’s content standards for their grade level in a different manner than the traditional pencil and paper assessment. Examples of alternate assessments include teacher observations, samples of student work that demonstrate mastery of the content standards assessed by the statewide assessment, and standardized performance tasks.

Q: What is an alternate assessment based on alternate academic content standards?

A: An alternate achievement standard is an expectation of performance that differs in complexity from a grade-level achievement standard. The availability of this type of assessment has been established for a very small percentage of students with disabilities who cannot participate in the state’s assessment program even with accommodations.

The NCLB federal regulations regarding alternate assessments based on alternate standards specify that such an assessment option is intended for students “whose cognitive impairments may prevent them from attaining grade-level achievement standards, even with the very best instruction.” Those regulations also set a limit on the number of proficient and advanced scores on this type of assessment that can be used to calculate a school district’s “adequate yearly progress.” That limitation is designed to restrict this assessment option to a very small group of students with significant cognitive disabilities.

Q: Some states use “out-of-level” tests to assess students with disabilities. Which assessment option does such testing fall under?

A: Out-of-level testing typically means that a student who is in one grade is assessed using a level of a test developed for students in a lower grade. Terms such as “off-grade-level,” “instructional-level,” or “functional-level” are also used to describe this assessment practice. According to guidance issued by the U.S. Department of Education: “out-of-level testing is very often associated with lower expectations for special education students, tracking such students into lower-level curriculum with limited opportunities. Out-of-level testing may also limit student opportunities for moving to the next grade or graduating with a diploma.”

Under NCLB regulations, student assessment using an “out-of-level” test is considered the same as an alternate assessment based on alternate standards and is subject to the limitations set for this option.

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