Participation in General Assessments

Participation in state and district general assessments of academic content is a critical element of equal opportunity and access to education. This is true for students with disabilities, English learners, and English learners with disabilities.

When these students do not participate in large-scale assessments of academic content (for example, reading, mathematics, science, and other areas), their programs may be plagued by low expectations. Programs may also lack the information needed to make improvements.

Assessments help to measure:

  • How successful schools and districts are in including all students in standards-based education
  • How successful instructional strategies are in helping all students achieve at high levels
  • What specific curriculum and instructional areas need improvement for particular groups of students

It is only when all students participate in assessments that educators and policymakers are able to have an accurate picture of school or district strengths and needs. But this does not mean that all students take the same test.

Most students will participate in general assessments of academic content that have a variety of access tools available to all students, as well as accommodations for those with specific needs. A much smaller number of students with the most significant cognitive disabilities will participate in alternate assessments of academic content. All states have an alternate assessment based on alternate academic achievement standards (AA-AAAS).

With these ways to participate, the question becomes not whether students with disabilities, English learners, and English learners with disabilities will participate in assessments, but rather how they will participate. For students who receive special education services, the decision about how they participate is made by the Individualized Education Program (IEP) team. For other students with disabilities who have a 504 plan and English learners, schools vary in the process used to make this decision.

Frequently Asked Questions

All students, including students with disabilities, English learners, and English learners with disabilities, must participate in state and district academic content assessments. The question is not whether they should participate, but how they will participate. Most students will participate in general assessments, with or without accessibility features and accommodations as appropriate. A small percentage of students, those with the most significant cognitive disabilities, participate in a state or district alternate assessment based on alternate academic achievement standards (AA-AAAS). Students who participate in AA-AAAS are part of the overall accountability system. As required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), all English learners with disabilities are required to participate in state summative assessments used for accountability.

For the state summative reading/language arts assessment used for accountability, there are two options for English learners without disabilities who have come to the U.S. within the past 12 months: (a) Exempt them from one administration of the English language arts test and exclude their results from school accountability in that subject area for one year; or (b) Assess and report both English language arts and math performance every year but for accountability take a phase in approach to using their scores – Year 1: exclude; Year 2: include a measure of growth; Years 3 and later: Include proficiency.

For an accurate picture of the educational system's strengths and weaknesses, schools need to determine how ALL students are doing. Students who are excluded from measurement are excluded from school improvement plans based on that measurement. Unintended effects, such as not having access to limited resources to improve schools, are important reasons to include ALL students in measurement for accountability. Participation is also crucial for the students themselves, because raising expectations encourages all students to perform at a higher level. If all students are to benefit from educational reforms, all students must be included.

For students with disabilities who receive special education services, the Individualized Education Program (IEP) team makes decisions about participation in assessments. States have established criteria to help IEP teams make participation decisions. These teams know the student well, including the student's instructional program and the student's strengths, needs, and other relevant characteristics.

For English learners who have an IEP, assessment decisions are made by the IEP team. It is important that an English language development specialist serve on the IEP team so that decisions take into account both the student's disability and language learning needs. For English learners who have a 504 accommodation plan, assessment decisions often are made by a school-based decision-making team. Regardless of whether a team is involved, it is critical that decisions take into account both the disability and the language learning needs of the student.

Although there is no specific federal requirement for a team-based approach to assessment decision making for English learners who do not have disabilities, many schools and districts do have language development teams that make these decisions.

Start with the premise that all students are going to participate in the accountability system. The basis for decisions about participation in academic content assessments of English language arts, math, science, and other areas should not be the category of a student's disability, their level of proficiency in English, the settings in which the student receives instruction, or the percentage of time a student spends in particular classroom settings. All states have guidelines that help in deciding which assessment option is the best for an individual student.

Although states have guidelines that address participation decisions for students with disabilities and English learners, not all states have them specifically for English learners with disabilities. If specific guidelines for English learners with disabilities do not exist, decision makers must use both the guidelines for students with disabilities and the guidelines for English learners. States that do not have guidelines for English learners with disabilities should work toward developing specific decision-making criteria for this population. These guidelines will make it easier for decision makers who must know both sets of criteria as well as the student (e.g., strengths, weaknesses, instructional program, first and second language skills) to make the best decisions.

Assessments in standards-based systems serve a number of purposes: instructional planning; measuring school and district performance; providing an indicator for state, district, school, and student accountability.

When the purpose is to measure the effectiveness of the school in helping all students−including students with disabilities, English learners, and English learners with disabilities−reach high standards, then having these students participate in the assessment is important. Participation is important WHETHER OR NOT they have had the opportunity to learn those skills. Only by measuring "how well the system is doing" will we clearly identify and then fill the gaps in instructional opportunity that leave out students from some special populations.

When the purpose of an assessment is to measure the progress of individual students, or to use the results for decisions about graduation or grade promotion, then full participation in the assessment is critical. At the same time, the system must make sure that students from special populations have access to opportunities to learn to high standards.

Involving the student and family or guardian in decisions is important to ensure that all understand the purpose of the assessment, and any concerns can be minimized. IEP teams should receive training and support on this topic. Teachers, parents, and school administrators can help students understand the purpose of assessments and reduce student anxiety about the testing experience.