by Ullik Rouk

What Issues Do States Face in Putting Their Accountability Systems into Effect?

New challenges and needs face states as they press to put their accountability systems into effect.

Equity Issues

Historically, states and districts have excluded or waived participation of students with special needs from assessment mandates. New laws, however, require their full inclusion. Including special needs students, according to proponents, provides more accurate assessment results and signals a commitment on the part of states and districts to support the academic progress of all students. At issue, however, is how to accommodate special needs students without overcompensating (Shepard, Taylor, & Betebenner, 1998). With little data and few models for guidance, the challenge for states has been considerable.

Some states in the SEDL region, such as New Mexico and Texas, have achieved national recognition for their groundbreaking work in developing and implementing alternate or modified exams for Spanish-speaking and special education students. Other states are struggling to develop strategic plans for improving inclusion practices in all aspects of assessment and accountability, not just for legal and procedural compliance, but to meet broader educational equity goals.

Students with Disabilities

To be eligible for funding under Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 1997 amendments require states and districts to include children with disabilities in assessment programs. Furthermore, the law stipulates that states and districts must make appropriate accommodations and modifications in administration, if necessary, and provide alternate assessments for children who cannot participate in the general assessment program. Reports to the public should be made available with the same frequency and in the same detail as reports on the assessment results of non-disabled children. Furthermore, the data in these reports should take two forms: aggregated to compare the performance of children with disabilities with all children, and disaggregated to compare the performance among all children with disabilities.

States have developed numerous accommodations for students with disabilities. Louisiana, for example, allows a limited number of special education students to participate in out-of-level testing or alternate assessment in lieu of taking general statewide assessments. Specifically, a maximum of 1.5 percent of students at any grade level per school district may participate in alternate assessment as determined by the LEAP Alternate Assessment Participation Criteria. Up to 4 percent of students at any grade level may participate in out-of-level testing. These students need to be functioning at least three grade levels below in reading, language, or mathematics. In the 1999-2000 school year, school districts were granted authority to waive the state’s grade promotion policy for students with disabilities.

English-Language Learners

Similarly, states are finding ways to accommodate students’ English language skills. The most typical accommodation is to allow English language learners to demonstrate their skills and knowledge in ways not hindered by language. This may involve translating assessments into students’ native languages (a costly procedure that is not always feasible given the number of languages spoken in many schools in the United States). Other approaches include oral reading of the test in English, allowing students to use dictionaries, extending testing time, or changing the method of response from paper and pencil to performance.

Despite these accommodations, there is wide agreement on the need to develop better ways of assessing students whose lack of English language skills may misrepresent their achievement.

Texas will have tests in Spanish in school year 1999-2000. In addition, Texas holds schools accountable for showing significant growth in the scores of sub-populations of students. This indicator focuses educators’ efforts on each ethnic group and assures girls and boys are treated equitably.

Despite these accommodations, there is wide agreement on the need to develop better ways of assessing students whose lack of English language skills may misrepresent their achievement. Until this issue is resolved, says a report of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans, test scores should not keep Hispanic children from being promoted to the next grade or from receiving a high school diploma. Members of this commission instead proposed that test scores be used to hold schools accountable for providing an adequate education to Hispanic students (White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans, 1999).

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Published in Insights on Educational Policy, Practice, and Research Number 11, August 2000, Tough Love: State Accountability Policies Push Student Achievement