Learning Opportunities for Your Child
Through Alternate Assessments
No one cares more about your child’s welfare than you. No one else will be more careful to see that your child is well educated and well treated in school. Now there are efforts underway across the country to help you achieve those goals.
High Expectations for All Students
The first big idea changing the way schools and parents plan is that all children benefit when schools have high expectations for what each student is expected to know and be able to do.
Since the early days of special education services, we have learned a lot about how students with the most significant cognitive disabilities can learn and become more independent. For example, we learned in the 1980s that a functional, life skills curriculum allowed students with the most challenging disabilities to participate meaningfully in their home and community life. In the 1990s, we found that inclusion with same age classmates was an effective approach to helping students with the most challenging disabilities make their own life decisions and improve their communication and other social skills.
In the past five years, in communities and schools across the country, parents and teachers are again discovering new possibilities. Across the country, we are finding that students with the most significant cognitive disabilities can access, and make progress in, the general curriculum.
Today, many students with the most significant cognitive disabilities are included in their enrolled grade classrooms and they are learning academic skills and gaining understanding linked to the same content as their classmates.
As part of the NCLB and IDEA assessment and accountability requirements, students with the most significant cognitive disabilities are participating in a curriculum based on the same academic content standards that all their grade-level peers are learning—content that is age-appropriate, engaging and challenging. Sometimes, they interact with this same content in slightly different ways from their classmates—through assistive technology, pictures, symbols or textures, or through whatever method they use to communicate. They also are showing what they have learned in creative and exciting ways.
You and your child’s individualized education program (IEP) team will decide which assessment option is right for your child. IEP teams decide how each student will participate in assessments, not whether students will participate. An alternate assessment based on alternate achievement standards is an assessment designed for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities that will measure achievement separately in reading and language arts, math and science.
These alternate assessments make it possible for your child to show what he or she has learned—and for the school to be held accountable for that achievement.
Many parents worry about schools assessing their children with the most significant cognitive disabilities. They know that their child may not have access to academic instruction in math and reading (that is, access to the general curriculum). They may wonder if it really is possible for their child to learn reading and math.
Many children with the most significant cognitive disabilities have IEP goals that are focused on learning life skills. The third big idea contained in NCLB and IDEA recognizes that students with the most significant cognitive disabilities can learn both functional skills and academic skills at the same time. That is, we should not wait to teach a child to read until after they have mastered functional skills. As one researcher put it, “Students who are nondisabled are not expected to master cleaning their rooms or washing their hands before they receive instruction in reading.” Many of the resources we provide at the end of this booklet confirm that students with significant challenges can thrive by learning academic content while they are learning life skills, just as their typical peers do.
Just looking at grade-level curriculum can make the task of identifying ways to link your child’s curriculum to grade-level learning standards formidable. Parents and IEP teams may conclude that some students with the most significant cognitive disabilities are unable to achieve grade-level expectations, even with the best instruction. What makes more sense, and is becoming good practice in many states, is to help IEP teams s-t-r-e-t-c-h the grade-level learning standards to make possible lots of “entry points.” Let’s look at some examples below:
Grade 7 Content Standard—Data Analysis (Statistics): Students will apply range and measures of central tendency (mean, median and mode) of a given numerical data set.
How students learn the content: All seventh-graders are learning the concepts of mean, median and mode. They plot various sets of data, including prices, to illustrate the concepts. Ron is plotting the mode using prices cut from advertisements and then glued on an organizer to create a bar graph.
Why this is useful: Looking at information and drawing conclusions from it (data analysis) is an important skill that helps us understand everything from shopping to social trends.
Combining academic and functional learning: Ron is learning the concepts of more, equal (“same”), and less in the context of consumer choices. Having access to the same information as other students his age helps him develop appropriate language and provides increased opportunities for interaction and communication.
Another student in Ron’s class is learning similar skills and concepts using an adapted keyboard to graph the mode. This activity gives that student an opportunity to practice picture identification and fine motor skills, as well more practice in ways (other than speech) to communicate.
Grade 6 Content Standard—Comprehending Literary Text (Elements of Literature): Students will describe the plots and main parts of grade-level novels (e.g., main events, conflict, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution).
How students learn the content: Sixth-graders are reading a book about dolphins and using it to learn about plot components. They all use graphic organizers to help them analyze the story. June is working on basic plot components using a graphic organizer that provides visual cues. Her materials also reflect her augmentative communication and text identification systems of photographs and line drawings paired with print.
Why this is useful: Learning to sequence events in reading gives students not only an appreciation of literature and a deeper understanding of recreation and leisure activities, but can help generalize sequencing skills. Sequencing is an important skill used in most life activities from self care to scheduling to vocational tasks.
Combining academic and functional learning: Besides text comprehension (including word recognition strategies and vocabulary), June is working on sequencing (first then next then last and beginning then middle then end). Having access to the same literature as other students her age gives her increased opportunities for interaction and communication.
Another student is identifying the events in the story using tactile symbols (sand for being alone on the island, fake fur for being hunted by the wild dogs, and a wooden dowel for the mast of the sailboat). This gives him more practice in developing and using a consistent mode of communication in addition to learning about the story and the concepts of beginning then ending and first then last. It also provides opportunities for sensory integration experiences.
What these examples have in common is that they are based on the state academic content standards, and demonstrate ways all children can access the general curriculum. That is the foundation on which your child’s alternate assessment must be built.
Your child’s progress on IEP goals or an assessment of functional life skills cannot be used as achievement measures under the accountability provisions of NCLB and IDEA. IEP goals are individual to each child and are developed for the purpose of reporting progress to parents and making decisions about programs and services a child receives.
In addition, IEP goals are often not aligned with state academic content standards. Therefore, it is not possible to use IEP goals to measure whether schools are meeting their goals for AYP, which is the measure of school accountability under NCLB. Learning functional skills may be an important component of your child’s IEP, but it is also critical that your child have access to the general curriculum and that your child’s academic achievement be counted for AYP purposes.
NCLB’s accountability provisions go beyond the individual accountability of the IEP to ensure each student’s broad learning needs in the general curriculum are supported. For students with disabilities, the system accountability of NCLB and IDEA adds more accountability—that every school and district must be accountable for the academic learning for all students—including those with the most significant cognitive disabilities.
All students with disabilities must be included in statewide and districtwide assessments. The IEP team plays a role in deciding how a student with the most significant cognitive disabilities will take the statewide assessment. The decision should be based on educational needs and parents should be active in this decision process. One way to prepare for making decisions about statewide assessments is to think about the following questions:
- How does your child get access to the general education academic curriculum and the topics that the testing will cover?
- How does your child communicate (for example, does your child want or need to read a short sentence, pay attention to a reader, identify pictures, recognize some letters and sounds, match words and use symbols to represent objects)?
- How does your child interact with text (for example, does your child pay attention to a reader, identify pictures, recognize some letters and sounds, match words and use symbols to represent objects, wants or needs or read a short sentence)?
- What kind of supports or modifications does your child use in order to be successful and participate actively in the general academic curriculum? Are those supports and accommodations going to be available for your child?
If the parents and their child’s IEP team decide that the child will take an alternate assessment based on alternate achievement standards, the IEP must contain a statement about why the student cannot participate in the regular assessment, and how the particular alternate assessment selected is appropriate for the child.
In some states, parents may be asked to give permission for their child to be videotaped or photographed while engaged in schoolwork, and a collection of school work samples as well as video or photographs are gathered over the course of several months. These collections of student work are then evaluated and given a score that indicates the level of achievement. This type of alternate assessment is sometimes called a portfolio assessment or a body of evidence.
In other states, the state prepares a performance assessment for each student’s teacher to administer to the student—these assessments are a set of specific tasks that the student performs over the course of several days. Usually the teacher provides whatever supports and learning tools the student uses in instruction to be sure that the student can give a response in a meaningful way. The teacher scores the tasks and submits them to the state for review.
Still other states may have a checklist of essential skills and knowledge for each grade and content area, sometimes called a rating scale or checklist. Over the course of several months, a teacher gathers information that results in a rating of the student’s achievement of these skills and knowledge. Usually evidence of those skills also is kept in the student’s file for occasional review by the state or district to be sure the ratings are accurate.
There are many different variations of these types of alternate assessments. Ask your child’s teacher or IEP team members to help you become familiar with the type of assessment your child will take.
Parents may also want to think about how much support and prompting may be too much. Students with the most significant cognitive disabilities may need lots of supports to successfully participate in assessments, but those supports should not prevent the student from demonstrating independent skills and problem solving.