Raising Achievement: Alternate Assessments for Students with Disabilities
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New Policy
States may develop modified academic achievement standards and use alternate assessments based on those modified achievement standards for students with persistent academic disabilities and served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. States may include proficient scores from such assessments in making adequate yearly progress (AYP) decisions but those scores will be capped at 2.0% of the total tested population. This provision does not limit how many students may be assessed against modified achievement standards.

This policy allows students with persistent academic disabilities to take academic assessments that are sensitive to measuring progress in their learning and that recognize their individual needs. This provision is for those students who are not likely to reach grade level achievement because of their disability in the same timeframe as students without disabilities, but who will make significant progress. Individualized education program (IEP) teams will make the decision about which individual students should take such an assessment.

Continued Policy
States may continue to use alternate assessments based on alternate achievement standards for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. States may continue to include proficient scores from such assessments in making AYP decisions and those scores will still be capped at 1.0% of the total tested population.

The provision for students with persistent academic disabilities does not take away or add to any provisions for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. These students may continue to be assessed with alternate achievement standards. The number of those proficient scores may not exceed 1.0 percent of all students in the grades tested. IEP teams will continue making the decision about which individual students should take such an assessment.

These policies do not limit how many students with disabilities may be assessed against alternate or modified achievement standards. However, scores for students with disabilities above the 1.0 and 2.0 percent caps will be measured against grade-level achievement standards in determining AYP.

Raising Achievement: A New Path for No Child Left Behind
With this announcement, the U.S. Department of Education intends to use what we've learned from science and the field over the last three years to move the law forward. We are willing to use a more sensible and informed approach regarding how students with persistent academic disabilities will be tested. From now on, more students with academic disabilities will be allowed to take tests that are geared specifically toward their abilities, as long as the state is working to best serve those students by providing rigorous research-based training for teachers, improving assessments and organizing collaboration between special education and classroom teachers.

To implement this policy, States must agree to several activities including improving alternate assessments based on alternate achievement standards, developing modified achievement standards, implementing a strong accountability system, offering high quality professional development, and training individualized education program (IEP) teams and teachers, particularly general education teachers. The Department, for its part, is unveiling a comprehensive technical assistance plan designed to help States with these activities. This technical assistance (approximately $14 million for the remaining 2005 fiscal year) will provide needed resources to improve instruction, assessments, and accountability for all students with disabilities.

In the short-term the Department will establish state-specific agreements where details about assessment development, AYP transition, and technical assistance will be described. The Department will use the Raising Achievement principles (such as student achievement, system accountability, and teacher quality) to determine which States may implement this interim flexibility. States using this provision must ensure their accountability system appropriately includes students with disabilities. For example, AYP group sizes for students with disabilities must be reduced to same number and/or percent as the AYP group sizes for all other student subgroups. We will also consider other factors such as monitoring findings from the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services and the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education.

This new provision will be released in a notice of proposed rulemaking later this spring where the Department will seek comments from local school officials, parents and others before finalizing the regulation. The Department anticipates that most States using this flexibility will be able to implement an alternate assessment based on modified achievement standards by 2005-2006 or (at the latest) 2006-07.

Rationale and Research
The 0.5% cap originally included in the August 2002 proposed regulation was based on data outlining the prevalence rates of students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. It was tied to a definition of such students which: 1) excluded students with mild mental retardation and other students who were two or fewer standard deviations below the mean, and 2) included students with intellectual functioning and adaptive behavior three or more standard deviations below the mean. When this rule was finalized, the Department expanded the cap to 1.0% to allow States and districts more flexibility in its implementation and removed the definition from the regulation.

However, research conducted and reviewed by Reid Lyon at National Institute for Child Health and Human Development and Jack Fletcher at the University of Texas indicates that the 1.0% cap is, in fact, too low, if the Department follows the definition currently provided in the December 2003 regulation's preamble (a student in one of 13 disability categories who cannot reach grade-level standards, even with the best instruction possible). [  1  ] 

This new policy is the position that best tracks the available research and research findings about students with disabilities. Summarized in a review by Lyon et al., the best-designed instructional interventions achieved a range of success from a low of 50% to a high of 90% of participating students reaching grade-level reading standards. Those students who did not respond well to these interventions (approximately 10-50%) are at-risk for later being identified with specific learning disabilities, and roughly translates into 0.5% to 3% of the total population. [  2  ]  The totality of this research suggests that there are about 1.8% to 2.5% of children who are not able to reach grade level standards, even with the best instruction. Their work also describes the following:

  • Torgeson et al. [  3  ]  concluded that most of the struggling students who received explicit reading instruction attained average levels of reading achievement, but 24% of these students did not reach grade level standards. Extrapolated to the population at large, that 24% of low responders reflects about 2.4% of the total student population who were unable to attain grade-level reading achievement. One follow-up study of fourth graders (Vellutino, Scanlon, and Jaccard, 2003) found that most students who were remediated up to grade level maintained their achievement levels, although a significant number did not. This finding suggests that young students who do not reach grade level in the early years will continue to struggle through at least the fourth grade. Lyon et al. conclude in their review that, when students receive classroom and tutorial interventions, the number of students who are at-risk for learning disabilities is less than 2% of the total population.

  • The following is taken from testimony Dr. Lyon presented to Congress in 1997: "We have learned that for 85% to 90% of poor readers, prevention and early intervention programs that combine instruction in phoneme awareness, phonics, spelling, reading fluency, and reading comprehension strategies provided by well-trained teachers can increase reading skills to average reading levels. However, we have also learned that if we delay early intervention until nine-years-of-age, (the time that most children with reading difficulties first receive services), approximately 75% of these children will continue to have difficulties learning to read throughout high school and their adult years."

These numbers (85-90% of 20 to 30% of all kids) would come out to 1.8 to 2.5% of children who are not able to reach grade level standards, even with the best instruction.

Research also supports the idea that IQ does not dictate achievement and, thus, cannot be used as a predictor. Kevin McGrew of the Institute for Applied Psychometrics notes that for most children with below average IQ scores, it is not possible to predict expected achievement with much accuracy. Lower-than-average IQ does not automatically translate into lower achievement or less ability to learn reading, language arts, mathematics, or other subjects. Other important variables affecting achievement appear to be interpersonal skills, motivation, engagement, and study skills, all of which can be positively influenced by high standards and expectations. Unfortunately, students are too often given a curriculum that is driven by educators' expectations of their students (based in part on a misunderstanding of IQ).

These research findings suggest that any new policy must be balanced between several somewhat competing priorities: 1) ensure that students with disabilities have access to the general curriculum and are tested appropriately; 2) allow the challenging goals of NCLB to press educators into changing their historically low expectations for students with disabilities; 3) preclude educators from basing their instruction on a student's IQ score; 4) respond to the concerns of educators in the field; and 5) acknowledge the research that suggests some students with academic disabilities will experience tremendous growth but may not reach grade-level achievement standards. The Department's new policy for students with persistent academic disabilities addresses each of these priorities.

Research-Base for a 2% AYP Exception for Students with Severe Academic Disabilities

Summary by Jack Fletcher

How many students exhibit severe academic disabilities? Studies were selected that allowed the computation of response rates to specific, high quality interventions. These studies largely focus on reading, reflecting the fact that reading problems are the most common factor resulting in identification for special education (Donavon & Cross, 2002). We focus both on studies that attempt to prevent reading disabilities as well as remedial studies of students who are identified with disabilities. This contrast is important because outcomes are much better for prevention compared to remedial studies, showing that early interventions in the reading area are pivotal components of efforts by schools to reach targeted AYP goals.

Prevention studies

The best outcomes are based on layered interventions that enhance classroom instruction and add supplemental small group instruction to those who struggle- a common Reading First model. These studies typically select students who are performing in the bottom 20% of school population on reading assessments (excluding students with significant cognitive disabilities). The studies show that about 90% of students who were at-risk for reading problems in K through second grade meet a word reading benchmark indicative of average levels of proficiency, after participating in the intervention. An intervention that does not work adequately with 10% of the bottom 20% of the population yields an inadequate response rate of 2%.

  1. Mathes, P.G., Denton, C.A., Fletcher, J.M., Anthony, J.L., Francis, D.J., & Schatschneider, C. (in press). An evaluation of two reading interventions derived from diverse models. Reading Research Quarterly.

    • Introduced two levels of reading intervention for Grade 1 students at-risk for reading problems. The inadequate response rate to a word-reading criterion at the 30th percentile was 8%. This translates to a 1.6% inadequate response rate that was higher if a fluency benchmark was used (3.9%).

  2. McMaster, K.L., Fuchs, D., Fuchs, L.S., & Compton, D.L. (in press). Responding to nonresponders: An experimental field trial of identification and intervention methods. Exceptional Children.

    • Multiple layered interventions were associated with inadequate response rates of 2-5% in the student population across different outcome benchmarks.

If any of the assumptions underlying these models are changed, the numbers only become higher. For example, if students with math disabilities are included, the numbers of inadequate responders to math interventions would increase (see Fuchs et al., 2005). If older students with identified disabilities who are served in special education are included, the numbers of inadequate responders are typically higher.

Remedial studies of students with disabilities

These studies attempt to enhance reading outcomes in students identified and served through special education in public schools:

  1. Klingner, J.K., Vaughn, S., Hughes, M.T., Schumm, J.S., & Elbaum, B. (1998). Outcomes for students with and without learning disabilities in inclusion classrooms. Learning Disability Research and Practice, 13, 153- 161.

    • Utilized a coteaching model in which the special education teacher worked in inclusion classrooms for 45- 90 minutes daily. By the end of the school year, average standard score gains in reading for students with disabilities were fewer than 4 standard score points in decoding and 2 points in comprehension. Eighty percent of students with disabilities read below grade level at the end of the intervention, an inadequate response rate that would extrapolate to 16% of the school population.

  2. Foorman, B.R., Francis, D.J., Winikates, D., Mehta, P., Schatschneider, C., & Fletcher, J. (1997). Early interventions for children with reading disabilities. Scientific Studies of Reading, 1, 255-276.

    • Implemented three forms of reading intervention with extensive professional development and coaching of the resource room teachers throughout the year for students identified with disabilities. Gains in reading were small; 78% of the students showed an inadequate response rate, which extrapolates to 16% of the school population.

  3. Torgesen, J.K., Alexander, A.W., Wagner, R.K., Rashotte, C.A., Voeller, K.K.S., & Conway, T. (2001). Intensive remedial instruction for children with severe reading disabilities: Immediate and long-term outcomes from two instructional approaches. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 34, 33-58.

    • Selected students identified with learning disabilities in the public schools who had reading scores below the 6th percentile in word recognition. They provided them with intense, research-based interventions. Using a word reading benchmark, 30% of the sample did not read in the average range at the end of intervention. Thirty percent of the bottom 5% is 1.5%. However, if a fluency benchmark was utilized, the number of non-responders would be well over half the sample and the nonresponse rate would exceed 4%. At the 20th percentile, the inadequate response rate is 6% for word reading and 12% for fluency.

  1. Lyon, G.R., Fletcher, J.M., Fuchs, L.S., & Chhabra, V. (In press). Learning Disabilities, in E. Mash and R. Barkley (Eds.) Treatment of childhood disorders (2nd Ed.). New York: Guilford. An annotated bibliography of some of this research is included as Appendix A.

  2. The 0.5% to 3% estimate was calculated using the following assumptions. Students with disabilities (SWD) are 12% of the population, and students with specific learning disabilities are 50% of the SWD population.

  3. Torgeson, J.K., Wagner, R.K., Rashotte, C.A., Rose, E., Lindamood, P., Conway, J., & Garvan, C. (1999). Preventing reading failure in young children with phonological processing disabilities: Group and individual responses to instruction. Journal of Educational Psychology, 91, 579-594.

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Last Modified: 05/12/2006