States must keep the needs of all students in mind as they revamp assessments

The pandemic took an extraordinary toll on teaching and learning in US schools; however some groups of students, including those with disabilities, were disproportionately impacted. The negative impact of the pandemic on students with disabilities can be seen on a host of measures, from long-term trend data on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) to declining graduation rates and limited access to services.

As we work collectively as a nation to recover from the historic disruption to K–12 schooling, it’s important to consider the role of assessment. At the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), we and our allies have fought hard for the inclusion of historically marginalized students, including those with disabilities, on statewide summative assessments.

Assessment requirements

Students have to be assessed in reading and math annually in grades 3–8 and once in high school. They must also be tested in science once in grades 3–5, 6–8, and high school. The data must be reported by subgroup categories, so the public can see how schools are helping all children succeed. Prior to this federal requirement, some subgroups, particularly students with disabilities, failed to get access to grade-level content. In addition, their performance wasn’t analyzed or prioritized.

At the height of the pandemic, states received waivers to skip this testing during the 2020–2021 school year. Today, states are once again required to administer these summative tests annually to all students. But there is a big push through, for example, US Department of Education state assessment grants, the US Chamber of Commerce Design Challenge, and the National Urban League and UnidosUS Future of Assessment and Accountability project to overhaul them to be more instructionally relevant, engaging, and shorter, among other things. As states reconsider current assessment systems, it’s vital that the needs of students with disabilities are included.

With that in mind, NCLD recently conducted a national survey with educators and caregivers of students with disabilities and held focus-group discussions with young adults with disabilities and caregivers to gauge how they feel about current assessment systems, policies, and potential changes on the horizon. In a recently released report, we lift up the results of those surveys and discussions and share information gleaned from interviews with disability rights experts. I’m grateful to NWEA for the opportunity to also share what we learned here.

What our survey revealed

We conducted our survey and focus group interviews to better assess how the disability community and teachers feel about state summative tests. In general, caregivers take a more positive view of assessments than educators.

For example, among caregivers of students with learning disabilities, 73 percent “agree” or “somewhat agree” that state summative assessments provide important information that helps them determine how their child is performing in school. In contrast, only 52 percent of educators held that viewpoint. In addition, 78 percent of parents and guardians said they believed the federal government should request that states administer summative assessments at least once per year, as is required by federal law, compared to 48 percent of educators.

Testing accommodations, however, are an area of agreement. More than three-fourths of both caregivers and educators say accommodations are essential for children to show their potential on assessments.

A variety of factors may help explain the differences in views held by the two groups. For example, educators may be more likely to devalue the instructional role of assessments because they have more access to formative assessment data and other instructional information than caregivers, who are generally eager for data that informs them about their child’s academic progress.

Focus group findings

Several key trends also emerged from our focus group conversations with families and young adults with disabilities.

Both caregivers and former students were well aware that assessments were used to measure student progress against standards. They were largely unaware, however, that state summative tests were used to hold schools accountable for student subgroup performance.

Those interviewed also held misconceptions around the impact of scores on individual students, including around grade-level promotion. They said better communication by school and system leaders would be helpful in ensuring families understand the purpose of state summative tests. Caregivers also noted their kids were unnecessarily anxious about state summative tests, mistakenly thinking they were high stakes for the students. The young adults interviewed said accommodations, like extra time and separate testing rooms, eased their anxiety but sometimes made them feel stigmatized.

Families and the former students interviewed said state summative tests should be used to evaluate schools along with multiple measures, like attendance, teacher qualifications, student–teacher ratios, and access to counselors and advanced coursework.

Innovative assessments

Our report also examines the push nationwide for innovative assessments. Two federal programs, the Innovative Assessment Demonstration Authority and Competitive Grants for State Assessments, are aimed at encouraging states to improve their assessments. Key goals include making them more robust, more instructionally relevant, and less burdensome.

At NCLD, we applaud those efforts but also want to be sure new assessments are inclusive of students with disabilities. Assessments should continue to measure student progress against grade-level standards and against content areas within a subject and grade. All students, and especially students with disabilities, may have uneven performance within a grade or content area, and identifying areas in which kids are struggling is important.

Policy recommendations

To continue to spur innovation and ensure the needs of all students, including those with disabilities, are met, federal policymakers should consider the following recommendations.

  • Preserve requirements that ensure families, educators, and leaders can measure individual student progress and subgroup progress against grade-level performance targets
  • Assist states in providing equitable access to standardized assessments, including ensuring they build accessible tests
  • Allocate funding for innovative assessments and prioritize the development of tests that support subgroups traditionally excluded from standardized assessment systems
  • Incentivize collaboration across states to drive improvements

State and district policymakers should consider the following actions:

  • Allocate sufficient funding to improve assessments
  • Bring together stakeholders to refine assessment systems and make them accessible and inclusive
  • Apply the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) to assessments
  • Improve communication to families related to assessments and assessment results

Assessments are vital for supporting students with disabilities. Improving them is important, but we need to ensure we do so in ways that make them better, make them more equitable, and expand access in meaningful ways.

If your school or system is taking steps to improve assessments, we’d love to hear how it’s going. Reach out at @ncldorg on Twitter.

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