Chances are, if you’re living in a state other than Alaska, the alternate assessment you’ll deliver to your students this year looks different from the one I’ll deliver to mine. On top of that, the appearance, delivery protocol, participation guidelines, and scoring procedures of your state’s assessment have likely changed since last year.
It can be a frustrating but important realization that our field is prone to more procedural limbo, revision, and flux than any other in the realm of education. It’s enough to make you stop and think for a moment: How did we get here . . . and where are we going?
As I understand it, long before I entered the profession, students receiving special education services were excluded from statewide assessments. However, since 1997’s amended IDEA law, not only have students with significant cognitive disabilities been required to participate in testing, but schools have been required to develop alternate means of assessment for those students.
Each state’s Department of Education set to work on designing, producing, implementing, and reporting the scores of its own alternate assessment. By 2001’s No Child Left Behind Act, each state had begun accumulating student test data. In Alaska, the advent of each school year meant revisions to the teacher trainings, participation, and scoring procedures—such that evolving policy was no longer printed, as it was almost universally acknowledged that change was on the way.
By now, each of our states has slightly different policy, procedure, content, and scoring with respect to alternate assessments. The good news is that we’re learning more and more about what our students with significant cognitive disabilities do and don’t know. In some cases it’s even guiding our instruction and informing our curriculums.
The bad news is that it’s become very apparent that we still have a long way to go in developing reliable and valid assessments to guarantee students with significant cognitive disabilities are participating in and receiving the education to which they’re entitled. There’s also the matter of what happens to the small contingency of students whose disabilities may not make them eligible for the alternate assessment.
In Alaska, particularly in the rural regions, the social, cultural, and geographic challenges to developing and delivering an equitable alternate assessment are even greater. Tracking migrant families, adjusting for language differences, and developing test questions that minimize cultural assumptions are only a few of the issues.
One attribute I would ascribe to a good special educator would be resiliency. As classroom teachers, we’re often asked to change the way we do our jobs with little to no input into the process. Most of us are used to making team decisions for the benefit of the student, not the system. When implementing our respective alternate assessments, it’s useful to remember that the system needs accountability as much as the student. Even if the test doesn’t provide data as meaningful as that observed and documented on a day-to-day basis, it may give research professionals the knowledge to create better alternate assessments in the future.
The very idea of students with significant disabilities participating in statewide assessments is progressive. It’s a good one. Along with it comes the process of feeling our way in the dark. It’s trusting that today’s questionably reliable alternate assessment will lead to a better one tomorrow.
For those who’ve been teaching since the very beginning of this process, I truly respect your resiliency. Veteran educators have unique perspectives on this issue. I would value your comments on how the implementation of alternate assessments has impacted your curriculums and classrooms. Let us know your perspective on where we’ve been and where we’re going. . . .
Read more about alternate assessments:
Common Misperceptions and Research-based Recommendations for Alternate Assessment based on Alternate Achievement Standards (National Center on Educational Outcomes)
Alternate assessment: Have we learned anything new? (Exceptional Children 75-2; CEC members-only content)