No Child Left Behind Act:

Most Students with Disabilities Participated in Statewide Assessments, but Inclusion Options Could Be Improved

GAO-05-618: Published: Jul 20, 2005. Publicly Released: Jul 20, 2005.

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Cornelia M. Ashby
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The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 has focused attention on improving the academic achievement of all students, including more than 6 million students with disabilities and requires that all students be assessed. Students with disabilities may be included through accommodations, such as extended time, or alternate assessments, such as teacher observation of student performance. To provide information about the participation of students with disabilities in statewide assessments, GAO determined (1) the extent to which students with disabilities were included in statewide assessments; (2) what issues selected states faced in implementing alternate assessments; and (3) how the U.S. Department of Education (Education) supported states in their efforts to assess students with disabilities.

In the 2003-04 school year, at least 95 percent of students with disabilities participated in statewide reading assessments in 41 of the 49 states that provided data. Students with disabilities were most often included in the regular reading assessment, and relatively few took alternate assessments. Nationwide, the percentage of students with disabilities who were excluded from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) was 5 percent, but varied across states, ranging from about 2 percent to 10 percent in 2002. Among the reasons for exclusion were differences in accommodations between states and the NAEP and variation in decisions among states about who should take the NAEP. National experts and officials in the four states we studied told us that designing and implementing alternate assessments was difficult because these assessments were relatively new and the abilities of students assessed varied widely. Officials in two states said they were not using an alternate assessment measured on grade-level standards because they were unfamiliar with such assessment models or because of concerns that the assessment would not appropriately measure achievement. In addition, learning the skills to administer alternate assessments was time-consuming for teachers, as was administering the assessment. Education provided support to states on including students with disabilities in statewide assessments in a number of ways, including disseminating guidance through its Web site. However, a number of state officials told us that the regulations and guidance did not provide illustrative examples of alternate assessments and how they could be used to appropriately assess students with disabilities. In addition, our review of Education's Web site revealed that information on certain topics was difficult to locate.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In December 2005, the Department of Education posted a link to information on "Assessing Students with Disabilities" to the "NCLB Guidance" feature on the No Child Left Behind Web page. This link takes you to the Department's Elementary and Secondary Education Policy Guidance Web page, which provides regulations, guidance, frequently asked questions, research on assessments, and other information to help states improve assessments for students with disabilities. As items become available, the Department will add new items to this Web page. In addition, in April 2006, the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services released a "Tool Kit" of information and resources to help them improve instruction, curricula, and assessments for students with disabilities. According to Education, the "Tool Kit" is maintained on a dedicated Web page and updated as new resources become available, so that materials that may provide helpful information on improving assessment practice for students with disabilities will be more accessible.

    Recommendation: To increase the participation of students with disabilities in assessments, the Secretary of Education should explore ways to make the information on the inclusion of students with disabilities in statewide assessments more accessible to users of its Web site. Specifically, information on the NCLBA section of Education's Web site concerning alternate assessment requirements for students with disabilities should be linked to information on the research, development, and use of these assessments that is available on other sections of Education's Web site.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: During the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) assessments, NAEP state coordinators and field staff worked with schools to make sure that school officials understood the nature of the NAEP program, including the fact that no individual student results are produced. The state coordinators worked with the field staff to make sure that they were aware of the accommodation policies and practices of the states in which they were working. Materials were developed to show field staff, school officials, and the public the difference between state tests and NAEP, including differences in accommodation policies. School officials were provided with a letter from the Department's Office of Special Education Programs and Office of English Language Acquisition encouraging participation of students with disabilities and English language learners in the NAEP assessments. According to anecdotal reports, this letter was effective in persuading school staff to allow students with disabilities to participate in NAEP who otherwise would have been excluded. An ad hoc committee on testing students with disabilities and English language learners, formed by the National Assessment Governing Board, will bring preliminary recommendations to the Board at their August 7 meeting. These recommendations will set forth policies designed to enhance participation in the assessments and reduce the discrepancies between states in their exclusion rates in NAEP. The Board is expected to adopt the recommendations at its November meeting.

    Recommendation: To increase the participation of students with disabilities in assessments, the Secretary of Education should work with states, particularly those with high exclusion rates, to explore strategies to reduce the number of students with disabilities who are excluded from the NAEP assessment.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education


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