U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is proposing to eliminate an alternative test for students with disabilities, arguing it undercuts their academic potential. The value of the test has divided the education and disability rights communities, with some advocates agreeing with Duncan and others saying the test accurately captures what students have learned.
Critics of California’s version, the California Modified Assessment, have charged that some districts have pushed administering the test to many more students with disabilities than the federal government had intended. Because students with disabilities perform far better on the modified test than on the California Standards Tests, the overall impact has been to artificially inflate districts’ and schools’ scores on the Academic Performance Index, the chief measure of student performance, concluded Doug McRae, a retired standardized testing executive who analyzed annual API results in a commentary last year for EdSource Today.
California is one of 16 states that have created a modified assessment aligned with state standards. If Duncan’s proposal is adopted, next spring will be the last year that the state can administer its modified assessment. Other states already have agreed not to offer it, as a condition for receiving a waiver from the No Child Left Behind law, according to Education Week. Duncan published his proposal last week in the Federal Register.
Duncan had pledged two years ago to do away with the test, so the announcement came as no surprise, said Deb Sigman, deputy superintendent of public instruction. The state had intended to offer students who had taken the modified assessments the same Common Core tests in math and English language arts that all students will take, starting in 2014-15. California is among the states offering the Smarter Balanced version of the Common Core tests. As a computer adaptive test, it will tailor questions to each student, based on answers to previous questions. As a result, it promises to give a more precise measure of what students have learned, she said. Sigman is on the executive committee of the multi-state Smarter Balanced consortium.
Nonetheless, Alice Parker, a Sacramento-based special education consultant and former state assistant superintendent and director of special education, said an outright elimination of a modified assessment could be harmful. For some students with disabilities, the test “closely aligned with what students were striving to learn.” Having these students take a standard test without accommodations was detrimental; the results didn’t accurately reflect the progress that many had made, she said.
At the same time, Parker agreed with McRae that districts had given the test to too many students, with the equal harm of giving “an inflated look at what students are learning.” The high scores for many students “created a false image of capability” that students discovered only when they enrolled in community colleges and universities.
Duncan’s view, shared by some advocates for the disabled, including Easter Seals and the National Center for Learning Disabilities, is that the modified assessment sells students short and, he said in a statement, “prevents these students from reaching their full potential, and prevents our country from benefiting from that potential.”
Maureen Burness, a retired director of regional special education programs and a member of the state’s Advisory Commission on Special Education, agrees. She wrote in an email “that WITH appropriate modifications in instruction and assessments, this could be the push from which most students with disabilities could benefit.” Since most special education students have learning or specific language impairments, “most should be able to learn to standards and be assessed as such.”
Since 2005, the federal Department of Education permitted states to create modified tests for special education students under the so-called “2 percent rule.” The tests were to be given to up to 2 percent of students in a district – or about 20 percent of students with disabilities. In California, only those students with disabilities who had scored below basic or far below basic on the California Standards Tests the year before were eligible for the modified assessment.
But as the California Modified Assessment was phased in, districts quickly expanded its use. Last year, 46 percent of students with disabilities in the state took the assessment, with over 50 percent in middle school. In San Bernardino, Fresno and Santa Ana unified districts and in Sweetwater High School District, more than 70 percent of students with disabilities took it. By McRae’s calculations, 39 percent of the gain in statewide API scores in elementary school and 27 percent of middle school gains over the past five years were attributable to the overuse of the test.
McRae, in an email, said that the modified assessment serves a valid purpose and he would favor creating a version aligned to the Common Core standards and restricted to 20 percent of students with disabilities. In calculating API scores, the results on a modified assessment should be discounted to take into account an easier test, which California did not do, he wrote.
California and other states also offer a separate test for the 1 percent of students with the most severe cognitive disabilities. That test, the California Alternative Performance Assessment or CAPA, was not affected by Duncan’s proposal.