Since the early 1990s, Federal legislation and regulations have driven dramatic changes in the inclusion of students with disabilities and English learners (ELs), including ELs 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 students with disabilities would participate in state and districtwide assessments. For those students unable to do so, 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 ELs 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 ELs 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 achievement standards (AA-AAS) and earned a proficient score could count for AYP (up to 1% of the total student population). 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the alternate assessment based on modified achievement standards (AA-MAS); the regulations that permitted it were rescinded by the Federal government in August, 2015.
In 2011 the U.S. Department of Education allowed states to apply for waivers that would provide flexibility from some of the requirements of NCLB. The waiver applications further confirmed the inclusion of students with disabilities, ELs and ELs with disabilities in assessment systems used for accountability purposes. In the application, states were required to provide incentives for districts or schools to increase achievement of all students. This included students from traditionally low-achieving subgroups, including students with disabilities, English learners (ELs), and ELs with disabilities. States that applied for flexibility set Annual Measurable Objectives (AMOs). AMOs were yearly targets that are set by states.
To receive flexibility, states with an AA-MAS were required to include a plan to phase out the use of the AA-MAS for ESEA accountability by the 2014-15 school year. Plans also included ways to better align English language instruction with grade-level content standards for ELs, including ELs with disabilities. One part of the waiver specifically addressed the development of English language proficiency (ELP) assessments aligned to college- and career-ready standards. States also had to address how they would build teacher capacity to develop ELs’ academic language in content classes.
Under NCLB states sought to close the performance gap between subgroups. Students with disabilities and ELs 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 additional flexibility, and replaces the waivers. 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 ELs.
ESSA continues to include students with disabilities and ELs in state content assessments used for accountability. As under NCLB, ELs are included in state ELP assessments. The EL 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 ELs.
ESSA indicates that up to 1% of the total student population can participate in AA-AAS. ESSA also allows the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (ACGR) to include students with the most significant cognitive disabilities who were assessed using AA-AAS 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.