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Ed. Dept. Policing ESSA Rules on Portfolio Assessments for Students With Disabilities

The U.S. Department of Education  has started informing a small group of states that they will have to make changes to the way they test students with severe cognitive disabilities, because of accountability changes brought about by the Every Student Succeeds Act. 

Students with the most severe cognitive disabilities are permitted to take an alternate assessment aligned to alternate achievement standards. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, the predecessor to ESSA, that assessment could be in the form of a portfolio, or collection of student work.

But ESSA states that student assessments for accountability can only "be partially delivered in the form of portfolios, projects, or extended performance tasks," meaning that states relying solely on portfolios have to make a change. 

Officials at the Education Department said only a few state educational agencies are expected to be affected by this, and said that so far, Georgia and Puerto Rico have been notified that they will have to change their testing procedures. 

Allison Timberlake, Georgia's deputy superintendent for assessment and accountability, said the state is reviewing the law and regulations, but doesn't anticipate a problem. The state is in the process of developing a new alternate assessment that will require students to perform standardized tasks, rather than relying solely on teachers collecting evidence of student performance. 

"As we develop the new alternate assessment, we will review it to ensure it meets all federal requirements," Timberlake said. 

This issue was raised through a separate assessment peer review process handled by the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. That office uses peer review to ensure that each state's assessments meet the law's requirements. A state that does not meet ESSA's rules must submit a plan and a timeline it will follow to bring its tests into compliance.

Portfolio Assessments on the Decline

Portfolio assessments were more popular when the NCLB law first passed, said Sheryl Lazarus, the co-director of a federally funded center that helps states create inclusive practices for students with significant disabilities. 

But "there always has been a concern about measurement issues and how accurate [the portfolio] really is," she said. 

Facing those concerns about accurate measurement and rigor, most states switched to standardized tests for students with severe cognitive disabilities. Many chose tests produced by the National Center and State Collaborative (now called the Multi-State Alternate Assessment) and Dynamic Learning Maps.Those two organizations received federal funds to create alternate assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards. 

ESSA has also made a change in how many students can be given such tests. The NCLB law stated that no more than 1 percent of tested students could be counted as proficient using an alternate assessment. It placed no cap on the percentage of students who could take such tests. 

In contrast, ESSA states that no more than 1 percent of a state's students can be given an alternate assessment.

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