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Performance Assessments and Students with Disabilities

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This post is by Ace Parsi, the Personalized Learning Partnership Manager for the National Center for Learning Disabilities, and Susan Lyons, an associate at the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment.

Nationally, the high school graduation rate for students with disabilities hovers at just over 60 percent. Bob Balfanz coined the term "dropout factory" to describe schools where graduation rates were under 60 percent, so as it stands, our nation can be classified as a dropout factory for students with disabilities. Our response to that fact demands wholesale reform, rather than tinkering around the edges. Of course, this isn't a simple problem. Our challenges in educating students with disabilities are multifaceted and stem from a number of factors, including shortages in qualified staff, historical underfunding of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and a lack of capacity to implement research-based practices in working with this population. These are all valid issues that must be addressed, but one key factor that is often overlooked is access to high-quality, engaging instruction and assessment.

In 2015, the then-Assistant Secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services at the US Department of Education, Michael Yudin, released a memo to all districts and states highlighting a responsibility to ensure that student Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) are aligned to state academic standards. However, the question still remains, How well do state assessments gauge the full depth of knowledge, skills, and dispositions embedded in state standards? The reality is that if any one link of the chain linking skills essential to 21st century success, standards, assessments, and student IEPs is broken, the readiness of students with disabilities for future success is put in jeopardy. 

This issue of alignment is one of the real potentials of performance assessments as part of a system that transforms teaching and learning for students with disabilities. Because they can facilitate complex demonstrations of knowledge, performance assessments can be more authentic measures of the skills represented in the state standards and in students' IEPs. Performance assessments can be used to more effectively align IEPs' goals to the measures of student learning by integrating skills across disciplines and measuring student skills at a deeper level than traditional standardized assessments. Through this connection, performance assessments provide an opportunity for a more coherent educational experience for students with disabilities. Performance assessments not only have the potential for measuring what students know and can do more authentically and deeply than traditional assessments, but when designed and implemented well, they can also improve engagement, student voice, and ownership of learning, and they offer flexibility in how student learning is demonstrated.

These are tangible and significant benefits for any can student, but for students with disabilities--who often demonstrate their learning in different ways, who can be denied access to rigorous content, and who are particularly vulnerable to disengaging from school--performance-based assessment systems can be a real game changer. This may be one reason why forthcoming research out of the University of New Hampshire has seen early evidence that students with disabilities in districts implementing Performance Assessment for Competency Education (PACE) in New Hampshire are significantly outperforming their peers in non-PACE districts on the 8th grade Smarter Balanced assessments.

While the potential for innovative systems of assessment and accountability is great, success is by no means a foregone conclusion. Like any initiative, performance assessments for students with disabilities have specific challenges that could affect their capacity to succeed. Districts and states need to have plans of action for addressing key implementation questions:

  • How can the assessment system be designed to be as accessible and inclusive as possible while maintaining the same level of rigor for all students?
  • What steps have been taken to build the capacity of educators to design and implement high quality performance assessments and to use performance assessments to improve the quality of their instruction for all students?
  • What evidence is being collected to ensure that that outcome measures resulting from performance assessments are valid and reliable evaluations of student performance for all subgroups?

States like New Hampshire that have taken steps to scale performance assessments have dedicated efforts to address these questions.

In the end, performance assessments provide a whole new set of opportunities for improving how we educate students with disabilities, but the flexibility and nuance that comes with thoughtful and successful implementation also present inherent challenges that must addressed up front in the design of any new kind of assessment system. Despite their limitations, NCLB-era assessments have provided greater transparency in revealing persistent achievement gaps for students with disabilities--a fact that proved significant in how students with disabilities experienced school and the attention they received. We need to learn from our experience without losing the laser focus on equity that came with the comparable, standardized outcome measures for all students. This will require intentionality on the part of states and districts in taking actions that amplify the benefits of performance assessments while reducing the potential for unintended negative consequences. Only then can we ensure that these new assessments become a meaningful engine of change in closing educational opportunity gaps that we intend them to be.      

 

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