This section includes information about both NCEO’s history and the policy history of the inclusion of students with disabilities, English learners, and English learners with disabilities in assessments.

NCEO History

The National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) was first funded in 1990 as a research and technical assistance center focused on identifying the important outcomes of education for students with disabilities. This initial work led to a realization that academic achievement was one of several critical outcomes of education for all students.

NCEO researchers looking for data on academic achievement discovered that students with disabilities had been excluded for the most part from large-scale measures of academic achievement. This finding led to NCEO’s efforts since that time to ensure that academic assessments are developed from the beginning with all students in mind (universal design).

Today, NCEO focuses on the inclusion of students with disabilities (including those with the most significant cognitive disabilities), English learners, and English learners with disabilities (including English learners with the most significant cognitive disabilities) in comprehensive assessment systems. The scope of NCEO’s work includes issues related to accessibility during formative assessment practices, classroom-based assessments, diagnostic assessments, interim assessments, and summative assessments.

NCEO has led the way in advocating for appropriate testing access and accommodations for students with disabilities, including English learners with disabilities and English learners without disabilities. Further, NCEO has worked to ensure that the assessment results for these groups of students are reported just as they are for other students and that they influence accountability systems in the same way as they do other students. 

Dr. Robert Bruininks directed NCEO during 1990. When he assumed the role of Dean of the College of Education, Dr. James Ysseldyke assumed the role of Director. ​Martha Thurlow served as director from 1999 to 2019. Since 2019, Dr. Sheryl Lazarus has been the director of NCEO.

Policy History

Since the early 1990s, federal legislation and regulations have driven dramatic changes in the inclusion of students with disabilities and English learners, including English learners with disabilities, in national, state, and district large-scale assessments. Initial requirements for the inclusion of these students were evident in the 1994 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), known as the Improving America’s Schools Act (IASA).

The reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1997 clearly stated the expectation that all students with disabilities would participate in state and districtwide assessments. For those students unable to participate in statewide general assessments, states were required to develop an alternate assessment.

In 2002, ESEA was reauthorized as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). It added accountability requirements (for Adequate Yearly Progress – AYP) to IASA’s requirement for all students to participate in state assessments based on academic content standards. It also included the requirement for English learners to participate in state assessments, and added a requirement for a state assessment of English language proficiency (ELP).

IDEA was reauthorized in 2004. It confirmed the intent of NCLB. All students with disabilities, including English learners with disabilities, were to participate in assessments. In addition, schools were to be held accountable for, and publicly report, on their participation and performance.

Subsequent to these laws, the U.S. Department of Education issued regulations for both ESEA and IDEA. These regulations confirmed that students with disabilities who participated in an alternate assessment based on alternate academic achievement standards (AA-AAAS) and earned a proficient score could count for AYP (up to 1% of the total student population in the tested grades). It also allowed for an alternate assessment based on grade level achievement standards (AA-GLAS).

Between 2007 and 2014, some states also had another optional assessment, the alternate assessment based on modified achievement standards (AA-MAS); the regulations that permitted it were rescinded by the federal government in August, 2015.

Under NCLB, states sought to close the performance gap between subgroups. Students with disabilities and English learners were two of the subgroups. When states applied for flexibility, they could develop new groupings of students called “supergroups” that combined several of the subgroups.

The Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) implemented Results Driven Accountability (RDA) in 2014. States are required to submit State Systemic Improvement Plans (SSIPs) that include a State-Identified Measurable Result (SIMR). More than 40 states selected SIMRs that use academic achievement data.

 In December 2015, ESEA was reauthorized as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). It offers states flexibility in defining their accountability systems within federally-provided guidelines. ESSA no longer allows states to use supergroups for accountability and reporting purposes. With ESSA, states will report results for individual subgroups, including students with disabilities and English learners.

ESSA continues to include students with disabilities and English learners in state content assessments used for accountability. As under NCLB, English learners are included in state ELP assessments. The English learner subgroup performance on ELP assessments is now also included in statewide accountability systems. In addition, schools must publicly report on participation and performance of students with disabilities and English learners.

ESSA indicates that up to 1% of the total tested student population in a subject area can participate in AA-AAAS. ESSA also allows the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (ACGR) to include students with the most significant cognitive disabilities who were assessed using AA-AAAS and awarded a state-defined alternate diploma that is standards-based, aligned with the state requirements for a regular high-school diploma, and obtained within the time period for which the state ensures a free appropriate public education.