Unintended Consequences of the Minnesota Basic Standards Tests:  Do the Data Answer the Questions Yet?

Minnesota Report 23

Published by the National Center on Educational Outcomes

Prepared by Jane Minnema, Sandy Thompson, Martha Thurlow, and Sarah Barrow

January 2000

Any or all portions of this document may be reproduced and distributed without prior permission, provided the source is cited as:

Minnema, J., Thompson, S., Thurlow, M., & Barrow, S. (2000). Unintended consequences of the Minnesota Basic Standards Tests: Do the data answer the questions yet? (Minnesota Report No. 23). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes. Retrieved [today's date], from the World Wide Web: http://cehd.umn.edu/NCEO/OnlinePubs/MnReport23.html


As part of an educational reform effort, Minnesota has implemented a statewide accountability system that tracks student performance and participation in statewide assessments. One component of this accountability system is the Basic Standards Tests, criterion referenced tests that measure acquisition of basic skills in reading and mathematics. First administered in 1996 as optional tests, school districts throughout the state of Minnesota are now required to administer both Reading and Math portions of the Basic Standards Tests to all 8th grade students and the Writing Test to 10th grade students. These tests are considered "high stakes" tests since students are required to achieve a predetermined level of competency to graduate from high school.

Because the 1997 reauthorization of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 97) requires all students to participate in statewide assessments, with alternate assessments to be in place by July 1, 2000, Minnesota has included as many students with disabilities as possible in Basic Standards Testing. Nearly 90% of all students with disabilities were included in the 1998 round of Basic Standards Testing, which is among the highest participation rate for students with disabilities in statewide assessments nationally (Erickson & Thurlow, 1997; Thompson, Spicuzza & Parson, 1999). While these participation and performance data are important to consider, they remain the intentional consequences of participation in statewide assessments. These outcome data do not, however, describe the entire experience of students with special education needs within the context of high stakes testing. Now that the Basic Standards Tests have been administered for at least three consecutive years, issues have emerged that point to unintended consequences of the high stakes testing.

One issue is an anticipated increase in the number of referrals for educational assessments for special education. Anecdotal reports from Minnesota teachers and administrators suggest that, in specific cases, parents or general education teachers refer students who have failed the Basic Standards Tests hoping that these students might qualify for special education services. Special education intervention could then support passing through modified performance on the Basic Standard Tests, provide the necessary accommodation(s) to pass, or exempt the student from participation entirely. In parallel fashion, there is also concern in the field that as more students do not pass the Basic Standards Test, more 504 Accommodation Plans will be requested.


What Do We Know?

A literature review was conducted to better understand the effects of statewide testing policies on the education of students with and without disabilities, particularly the unintended consequence of an increase in referrals for special education assessments or 504 Accommodation Plans. The purpose of this review was to document whether the perception of increased referrals that exists at the local level are indeed present in published research.

This perception is reinforced by some state and national documents that have provided reactions to high stakes assessments and state accountability systems. For instance, the 20th Annual Report to Congress on the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (U.S. Dept. of Education, 1998) expressed concern that the new higher standards implemented by various national reform proposals might fuel a tendency to classify children with disabilities. The report cited a situation in Texas where the Texas Executive Deputy Commissioner for Program and Instruction distributed a memo titled "Special education not a remedy for seniors failing the TAAS." Distributed to all superintendents and principals throughout Texas, administrators were warned that special education was not an appropriate solution for two or three failures of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS). This memo was written in response to rumors that the number of referrals to special education had increased as the TAAS was implemented.


Research in Florida

To date, there are few research studies that address this concern within the broader context of the unintended influence of educational reform on students with and without disabilities. One study has considered the impact of educational reform upon students with disabilities. In 1988, Bergquist, Elzie, and Groves conducted an evaluation of the effects of educational reform efforts in Florida. The Florida state legislature passed the Education Reform Act in 1983, which included statewide adoption of uniform performance standards to measure public school performance in each major subject area. The act also established minimum performance standards in science and computer literacy as well as a set of standards for excellence in reading, writing, math, science, and computer literacy. Data were gathered from state and district databases, surveys, record reviews, and interviews with district personnel and parents of students with disabilities. Overall, the authors concluded that the required curriculum frameworks and student performance standards had been beneficial for students with disabilities. However, there was no consistent database maintained to permit state level interpretation about these students. The authors could not determine whether the dropout rate had been affected or whether more students with disabilities were receiving equivalency degrees. The academic and vocational skill attainment of students with disabilities could not be determined. The concern about an increase in referrals to special education as a result of not meeting minimum performance standards was not addressed.


Research in New York

To more specifically consider the consequences of statewide assessment for students, two studies reported on actual numbers of students affected by the unintended consequences of state educational reform. Throughout the 1970s and the 1980s, New York schools initiated reforms that led to increased high stakes assessments and public accountability. By the early 1980s, the Regents Action Plan and the Regents Competency Test (RCT) were adopted. By 1985, public accountability was brought into the system through the Comprehensive Assessment Report (CAR). CAR is an annual report on the performance of New York schools that reports the number of students who achieve minimum competency in the basic skill areas. This report was used to identify the best and worst achieving schools. However, despite these reforms little was known about the effects the assessment system had on elementary-aged students.

Allington and McGill-Franzen (1992) looked at trends in retention, remediation, and special education placement from 1978 through 1990 to better understand the impact of New York educational reform. Data were collected for the school years 1978-79, 1984-85, and 1989-90. Schools selected for this study were categorized according to pupil performance on the Reading Test of the Pupil Evaluation Program (PEP). Four suburban schools were labeled stable and high achieving. Two rural and small urban schools were labeled stable and low achieving. Six schools were labeled low but improving. These were rural and urban schools. The 12 schools represented 12 districts and five counties throughout the state of New York. Schools varied in size, socioeconomic status, and number of minority students.

Data were collected on enrollment in each grade, the number of students retained in each grade, the number of students placed in transitional grade placements, and the number of students served by remedial programs at each grade level. The authors concluded that no significant differences existed in the incidence of retention and remediation between schools. The incidence of placement in special education increased from 2.1% annually to 3.5% annually. While this growth was significant, it was in line with the national average.

Since the PEP Reading test is not taken until grade 3, the authors looked at retention, remediation, and special education placement in the primary grades from kindergarten through grade 2. Significant increases were found in retention rates prior to grade 3 and in special education placement. These trends in the data differed according to school category. All schools reported increases, but the largest increases in special education placement and retentions were found to occur in the low achieving but improving schools. The authors concluded that these findings implied that schools were retaining and qualifying students for special education services in order to keep these students out of the accountability system. Schools in New York appeared to have responded to accountability pressures by excluding certain students from school reports.


Research in South Carolina

A second study conducted in South Carolina yielded similar conclusions. South Carolina enacted the Education Improvement Act (EIA) in 1984, and introduced components of it in phases over a number of years. EIA contained four components: (1) cash incentives were provided to schools and teachers based on students test performance, (2) programs were developed to identify "educationally impaired" school districts, (3) state policies were developed on the retention and promotion of students between grades, and (4) high school exit examinations and increased graduation requirements were initiated.

The South Carolina Assessment system consists of criterion and norm referenced tests. All students from grade 1 through grade 11 participate. The Cognitive Skills Assessment Battery (CSAB) is a criterion referenced school readiness test taken when entering first grade. State developed tests are administered in reading, math, science, and writing. Test scores were then used by South Carolina to identify high and low performing schools, to deliver incentives, and to make promotion and retention decisions for individual students based on a passing criterion of 70%.

Potter and Wall (1992) addressed the effects these reforms had on students. Data were collected on retention for the school years 1985-86 and 1989-90. Retention was studied by counting the number of over-age students in each grade. It was reported that the total number of over-age in grade 1 through grade 9 significantly increased between 1985 and 1990. The greatest numbers of over-age students clustered in grade 1 and grade 9. In 1990, 19.1% of Grade 1 students were over-age and 39.2% of grade 9 were over-age. This clustering of students suggests that like New York, South Carolina is attempting, through retention, to keep certain students out of the state accountability system. The authors also found that the number of over-age students after grade 9 decline rapidly, suggesting that a number of these students drop out of school before high school graduation.


Research in Kentucky

Guskey and Oldham (1997) report on one of the more comprehensive educational reform acts ever enacted in the United States, the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA). As of July 13, 1990, the Kentucky state legislature mandated changes in the administration, governance and finance, school organization, accountability, professional development, support for at-risk students, curriculum, and assessment practices. High level achievement goals for all students were put in place as well as decentralized decision making and increased funding for public schools. However, given the magnitude and the interrelatedness of these changes compounded by the compressed time frame for implementing the changes, both unanticipated and unintended consequences have occurred. Guskey and Oldham conducted interviews and reviewed available reports, investigations, surveys, and newspaper articles that yielded three major findings regarding the consequences of KERA: (1) there has been little data collected to date that describe the impact of KERA on student learning; (2) various components of KERA are perceived differently by the parents, teachers, and administrators who were interviewed; and (3) there were notable inconsistencies between reform components and within various reform components themselves. Of most importance to this report is the device available to schools to keep potentially low-scoring children out of high stakes assessments.

KERA provides for a primary nongraded school program before Grade 4 to facilitate continuous progress and to eliminate the stigma of retention for those students who develop at a slower rate. The assessment and accountability program requires that all students participate in statewide assessments when they leave the primary program at the fourth grade. Based on the results of these assessments, elementary schools are either rewarded for demonstrating significant gains in student achievement or sanctioned for not making sufficient improvement. In other words, the statewide assessments are high stakes for the educators in Kentucky schools, not the students. As a result, students whose academic skills are considered lower than average at the end of the primary program, tend to spend an additional year in the primary school program before participating in the statewide assessments in Grade 4. This retention practice is evident in the most recent statewide assessment results. After considerable public debate, the "high stakes" math assessments have been moved from Grade 4 to Grade 5. Since that adjustment in the accountability system, though, the retention rate statewide in Grade 4 has increased from .68% in 1993 to 1.06% in 1995.


Literature Review Conclusions

This brief literature review raises three concerns that are directly relevant to the research focus of this report. First, there are few studies that have specifically investigated the consequences of statewide accountability systems. Of those studies conducted, all but one report on data that are at least a decade old or more. No follow up studies were conducted throughout the 1990s that reported on the effects of statewide accountability systems on students with or without disabilities. Because of changing systems, we do not know whether the practice of retaining students to eliminate their performance scores from accountability systems continues in New York, South Carolina, or other states. Second, each of these studies deals with educational reform in a more general sense without looking specifically at the question of increased referrals for special education assessment. The concern about increases in special education referrals due to high stakes testing cannot be confirmed in the literature since few studies to date have specifically asked this research question. Third, for all of the studies reported, there is no comment about the quality of accountability data at either the state or district level; neither are the procedures for collecting or accessing these data described. Since the procedures for collecting data as well as the quality of state and local level data can vary, data interpretations would be enhanced by more information about the status of those databases that were analyzed. Fourth, definitions of terms such as "dropout" and "remediation" are not provided. Student dropout and remediation often are defined differently by individual school districts. Conclusions drawn from district comparisons of dropout or remediation data are problematic unless proper definitions are provided to assure consistency across these comparison school districts.


Consequences in Minnesota

The concern about unintended consequences of educational reform is not a new issue. In fact, to address these concerns, data from as early as the late 1970s have been analyzed. But, there are few studies that have specifically focused on the unintended consequences of statewide assessments or accountability systems. Rumors still abound at the practical level about how the education and lives of students with disabilities will be affected by educational reform. One specific concern for both teachers and administrators is the increased work load as more student educational needs are identified due to failure of high stakes tests. The consequences of failing high states exams for students with and without disabilities could be even more extreme. More students may be identified as needing remedial intervention when in fact they do not, or in the worst case scenario, more students may not graduate from high school. However, no recent study has directly investigated whether referrals to special education for assessment or requests for 504 Accommodation Plans have increased during the years since high stakes testing was introduced. The purpose of this study is to answer the following research question: Is there a change in the number of referrals for special education assessments or requests for 504 Accommodation Plans since the implementation of the Basic Standards Tests in the state of Minnesota?


A subset of school districts within the state of Minnesota was originally considered for study based on their prior agreement to participate in research studies conducted by the Minnesota Assessment Project. These districts were geographically balanced throughout the state according to Urban area, Suburban area, Greater Minnesota with populations of greater than 2,000, and Greater Minnesota with populations of less than 2,000. The intent was to identify one school district within each geographic locale from which special education referral and 504 Plan request data could be accessed, with a focus on grades surrounding grade 8, the grade at which Minnesota’s Basic Standards Tests are first administered.

To determine which districts could best provide special education referral and 504 Plan data, a telephone interview was developed, pilot tested, and conducted. Interview questions included whether these data were collected by the district, how these data were stored, and the ease with which these data could be accessed. Graduation technicians, special education directors, and, if possible, 504 Plan coordinators were contacted within each district. Additional personnel were contacted if necessary. These interview results were then analyzed according to the criteria of the availability of both special education referral and 504 Plan request data, how easily these data could be accessed, and district level of interest in participating in the study. A final set of four school districts, one from each geographic location, was determined by these selection criteria. Written permission to conduct the study was then obtained from each district.

A data collection sheet was created to obtain data for a first phase of this study. These data included the number of referrals for special education assessments in grades 7–12, for those students who qualified for special education services and those who did not qualify, and the number of 504 Plans provided for grades 7–12. Both special education and 504 Plan data were requested for the school years 1994–95 through 1998–99. Since the Basic Standards Tests were first administered in Minnesota in 1996 as an optional test with required administration throughout the state by 1998, it was thought that a trend could be observed in the data if at least one year of data was accessed prior to testing in 1996.

Data collection sheets were either faxed or mailed to the appropriate district personnel for data collection and then returned to the Minnesota Assessment Project. District personnel were requested to either access these numeric data from centralized, district databases or contact school personnel such as special education teachers, building principals, or school psychologists for a verbal report of data. Follow up telephone or e-mail contact was maintained between research assistants for the Minnesota Assessment Project and the participating school districts throughout the data collection process.

Additional staff and data collection strategies were employed to access special education referral data from the metropolitan school district. The referral data from school year 1994–95 through 1995–96 were stored on a computerized database in the school district’s central office. These data were accessed on diskette from the Student Accounting Office. For those referral data from school year 1996–97 through school year 1998–99, a research assistant worked in conjunction with the Office of Civil Rights, which also needed to access these special education referral data. School social workers were requested to collect special education referral data from the local schools where they were assigned. These data were then submitted to the Office of Civil Rights. Personal phone calls and site visits to assist in data collection were provided where necessary as follow up for all of those who did not respond. The final data set submitted to the Office of Civil Rights was entered on the data collection sheets created by the Minnesota Assessment Project.


Final Data Collection Sites

Complications arose in collecting data in several of the original data collection sites; thus, only two of the original sites were retained. One of the original sites was replaced by a district of comparable size. Another site was eliminated from the study, without finding a suitable replacement.

The final data set was accessed from three school districts that were located in three different regions of the state of Minnesota; one from an urban region of Minnesota, one from Greater Minnesota with a city population of more than 2,000, and one from Greater Minnesota with a city population of less than 2,000.

In the original research design, we planned to access district-level referral data from four school districts geographically balanced by city population. Our initial telephone interviews identified four school districts that indicated they collected the necessary data. Assurances were obtained from directors of special education or 504 Plan coordinators that the data necessary for answering our research question were available within each of these districts. Data collection was initiated in each school district using an approach that best fit the organizational capabilities of the school districts.

For two school districts, data were accessed by telephone contacts and faxes. These data sets were used in the final analyses. For the remaining two school districts, data collection became problematic. While school district personnel were willing to cooperate, the data were not available at the district level. Even when plans were developed to access these data from individual schools, problems arose. In some cases, teachers were able to count the number of referrals if agendas from child study team meetings were available. Other teachers were unable to provide information about how many referrals had been processed in the recent past due to staff turnover or student relocation. In fairness to the two districts unable to provide data, state policy only "encourages" districts to collect referral numbers for special education assessments or the number of requests for 504 Plans. At the present time, there is no reporting system established at the state level that requires the collection of these data for all students. The state database only identifies those students who have qualified according to state criteria for special education services or students with 504 Plans if they have passed the Basic Standards Tests. Since there is no state or federal funding tied to referrals for special education assessments, each district has its own method for collecting and editing these data.


Special Education Referral Analyses

For the Urban school district, two methods for collecting data were employed. Beginning in the school year 1991–92, social workers were required to report at the building level the number of referrals for special education assessments to the district office. Specific training for collecting and reporting these data was provided. Data were submitted periodically throughout the school year and finalized at the end of each school year. These data were then stored in computerized databases in the district central office. Of those data that were accessed for this study from this computerized database, data were broken down in two ways. First, total numbers of referrals to special education were available for the school years 1991–92 through 1997–98. In addition, data were available by building site so that approximate totals by grade were possible.

Schools varied by groupings of grades throughout this school district so that only approximate counts of referrals were possible. For instance, some junior high schools contained grades 6 through 8 while other junior high schools contained only 7th and 8th grades. A few schools contained kindergarten through 8th grade. All of these schools were included in the count of referrals for junior high age students. Since only total number of referrals per school building were available, these data can only be presented for junior high and high school aged students by total referral number combining approximately 7th grade through 12th grade.

Figure 1 presents data for the entire school district. According to these data, referrals to special education have decreased dramatically with 927 referrals in school year 1991–92 to 108 in school year 1997–98. While there is a decreasing pattern in these data, referral numbers are aggregated for all grades, making it difficult to determine whether this decrease in referrals to special education is related in any way to the introduction of the Basic Standards Tests. Further, school personnel who maintain this database suggested that the decreasing numbers of referrals did not represent a reduction in referrals to special education, but rather a reduction in submitting the proper paperwork to the central office.


Figure 1. Metropolitan Minnesota City Special Education Referral Numbers Across All Grade Levels

Figure 1. Metropolitan Minnesota City Special Education Referral Numbers Across All Grade Levels

Figure 2 presents number of referrals for junior high and senior high school from 1991–92 through 1997–98. This pattern is also difficult to interpret. The minimum number of referrals for one school is 0 with the maximum number 181 referrals; these referral numbers occur in school years 1994-95 and 1995-96 respectively. Rather than suggesting a connection between referral numbers for special education assessments and other events (such as testing), these numbers seem to point to the inaccuracy of these data.


Figure 2. Metropolitan Minnesota City Special Education Referral Numbers for Jr.-Sr. High Schools

Figure 2. Metropolitan Minnesota City Special Education Referral Numbers for Jr.-Sr. High Schools

A second method also was used to collect data in this Urban district.

Referral numbers for special education assessments were collected for the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in a manner similar to that used in previous years. Social workers were trained and required to collect and submit referral numbers to the OCR for the school years 1997-98 and 1998-99. For the final year of data collection a district employee followed up with each site that did not submit the necessary paper work. For the final year at least, the referral numbers do not contain many missing school sites. These data are displayed in Figure 3. As with the other data, it is difficult to determine from these data whether the implementation of the Basic Standards Tests has had an impact on the number of referrals to special education. The data in Figure 3 actually are more useful in documenting the accuracy of the first data set from the Urban school district. However, no similarity can be discerned from these data and those data accessed from the district office computerized database.


Figure 3. Metropolitan Minnesota City Special Education Referral Numbers

Figure 3. Metropolitan Minnesota City Special Education Referral Numbers

The data for school districts located in Greater Minnesota, both the school district in a community with a population greater than 2,000 and a community of less than 2,000, are displayed in Figures 4 and 5. For both of these school districts, the pattern appears to be one of more referrals occurring during the junior high school years while numbers of referrals drop off during the high school years. Neither school district reported more referrals for special education assessments during the time that the Basic Standards Tests were implemented. For instance, the Greater Minnesota > 2,000 school district reported 17 and 18 referrals for 7th and 8th grade respectively while the Greater Minnesota < 2,000 reported 11 referrals in both 7th and 8th grade for the school year 1996–97. Both school districts reported similar referral numbers for both the year prior to the optional round of the Basic Standards Tests and the years following. Again, there appears to be little increase in the referrals for special education assessments during the implementation phase of the Basic Standards Tests within these two districts in Greater Minnesota.


Figure 4. Greater Minnesota Special Education Referral Numbers (City Greater than 2,000)

Figure 4. Greater Minnesota Special Education Referral Numbers (City Greater than 2,000)


Figure 5. Greater Minnesota Special Education Referral Numbers (City Lesser than 2,000)

Figure 5. Greater Minnesota Special Education Referral Numbers (City Lesser than 2,000)

To provide the statewide context for these patterns in referral data for these school districts, Figure 6 displays the number of students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) statewide for the school year 1998–99. It is clear on this figure that there is a decrease of approximately 2,000 students with IEPs when 7th grade is compared to 12th grade. Grade 7 contains the most students with IEPs (n = 9,334) while grade 12 contains the least students (n = 7,287). For grades 9 through 12, there is a decrease in number of senior high students with IEPs over each consecutive year. The number of junior high students with IEPs remains relatively stable throughout grade 7 and grade 8.


Figure 6. Students with IEPs Statewide 1998-99

Figure 6. Students with IEPs Statewide 1998-99

It is interesting to note that while the number of students with disabilities generally decreases statewide from junior high to senior high, this pattern is not always present in a break down of the number of students by disability. For instance, the number of students receiving speech and language services decreases from junior high to senior high. However, this overall decrease for students with speech/language impairments is compensated by increases in other disability categories. There seems to be no consistent decrease or increase in numbers of students per disability category that explains the overall statewide pattern of decreasing numbers of students with disabilities from junior high through senior high school.

In sum, each of the three school districts indicated more referrals for special education assessments for junior high age students than for high school age students. This pattern in referral data is similar to the pattern in the statewide data for students who are receiving special education services. The number of referrals for grades 7 and 8 are somewhat comparable, while referrals for senior high decrease in number over grades 9 through 12.


504 Plan Accommodation Analyses

Data on the number of requests for 504 Accommodation Plans are not as complete as are the data on referrals for special education assessments. Two of the originally targeted sites were unable to provide any 504 Plan request numbers even though these numbers were thought to be available within the central offices of both school districts. A variety of follow up procedures were employed to procure these data, including face to face meetings, telephone calls, and offers to assist in the data collection. One site from the final pool of school districts was also unable to provide these numbers. Thus, we have no data on 504 Plans that were implemented in either the Metro or Suburban school districts.

Only recently have 504 data been collected at the state level. While each district is responsible for collecting and updating the number of students using 504 Accommodation Plans, these data are only reported to the state for those students who pass the Basic Standards Tests. However, these data are not date specific. In other words, the state database indicates the number of students who have 504 Accommodation Plans, but not the length of time for which they existed. For instance, a student might be enrolled for an entire school year, but use a plan for only three months of this school year. If this student passes the Basic Standards Test, the state database will indicate that this student uses a 504 Accommodation Plan. Therefore, the number of 504 Plans statewide is under reported for both the total number of plans, and the amount of school time that these plans are used. These data for the number of 504 Accommodation Plans implemented statewide for those students who have passed the Basic Standards Tests were then accessed from the Minnesota Department of Children, Families and Learning.

As of October 1st for the school year 1998–99, a total of 696 Accommodation Plans were provided for students in grades 7 through 12 throughout the state of Minnesota (see Figure 7). The largest number of plans was provided for 10th graders (n = 138) and for 11th graders (n = 136). Comparably fewer students in 12th grade (n = 86), 7th grade (n = 115), and 8th grade (n = 115) used accommodation plans during that school year. No pattern is evident in these data relevant to the Basic Standards Tests.


Figure 7. Students with 504 Plans Statewide 1998-99

Figure 7. Students with 504 Plans Statewide 1998-99

Data on requests for 504 Plans from a school district located in a city with a population of more than 2,000 are displayed in Figure 8. Data were accessed for five school years beginning with school year 1994–95 and ending with school year 1998-99. In addition, the number of requests from grade 7 through grade 12 were also provided. It should be noted that these data represent "active" 504 Accommodation Plans that were requested and implemented. It was reported by a district staff person that, to the best of her knowledge, no one was denied an accommodation plan when a request was made. It is assumed then that those students with active 504 Plans represent the number of requests for plans for a given grade within a given school year. While some plans may have been continued from previous school years, plans would not have been counted more than once over this period of time.


Figure 8. Number of 504 Plans Greater Minnesota City (City Greater than 2,000)

Figure 8. Number of 504 Plans Greater Minnesota City (City Greater than 2,000)

The total number of 504 Plans implemented within these school years is 48 plans. When considering the school years separately, more 504 Plans were implemented in the school years 1996–97 (n = 18) and 1997–98 (n = 17) than during the other three school years. In school year 1994–95, one plan was implemented, with five plans in 1995–96, and seven plans in 1998–99. For each school year, more 504 Plans are provided for students in the 8th grade than in the other grades. More plans are provided for 8th grade students during the school year 1996–97 when the Basic Standards Tests were first introduced. The number of 504 Plans does decrease over the next two school years where again the greatest number of Plans were implemented during the 8th grade.

In the school district in Greater Minnesota with a population less than 2,000, data on 504 Plans also were variable (See Figure 9). Sixteen Plans were provided for school year 1994–95, 16 Plans during 1995–96, 17 Plans during 1996–97, 15 Plans during 1997–98, and 21 Plans during 1998–99. For the school years 1994–95 through 1997–98, more Plans were implemented for 8th grade students except in 1997–98 when the same number of Plans were implemented for 7th and 8th grade students.


Figure 9. Number of 504 Plans Greater Minnesota City (City Less Than 2,000)

Figure 9. Number of 504 Plans Greater Minnesota City (City Less Than 2,000)

The pattern in these data remains consistent over the school years 1994–95 through 1997–98 with an increase of 6 Plans implemented during 1998–99. It is of interest that an increase in the number of 504 Plans can be noted for Grade 7 and Grade 8 since the Basic Standards Tests became mandatory on a statewide basis. During the school year 1994–95, four Plans were provided for 7th grade students and five Plans for 8th grade students. By the school year 1998–99, eight Plans were provided for 7th grade students and seven Plans for 8th grade students. However, the total number of Plans provided for junior high students in this district is relatively small, as are the increases over time for the five school years considered. Overall, the minimum number of accommodations provided for a grade is 0, with 8 as the maximum number of Plans provided for a grade (range = 8). These numbers are too small to accurately discern a change in requests for 504 Plans due to the Basic Standards Tests.



The larger Greater Minnesota district reported a total number of seven accommodation plans during the school year 1998–99 while the smaller Greater Minnesota school district reported a total of twenty-one accommodation plans for school 1998–99. That same school year, there were 696 accommodation plans implemented throughout the state of Minnesota. If these numbers are taken at face value, then the larger Greater Minnesota school district provided 1% of all plans statewide and the smaller Greater Minnesota school district provided 12% of the entire state’s accommodation plans. However, there are three factors to consider in understanding these numbers. First, the only numbers reported at the state level for 504 Plans are for those students who pass the Basic Standards Tests. Second, the increase in requests for accommodation plans may simply be due to overall increases in student enrollment numbers. Third, the general pattern of increasing numbers for 504 Plan requests may be a function of increased awareness of the purpose and use of the plans themselves.

It is important to remember that at least these two Greater Minnesota school districts were able to provide request numbers for 504 Plans implemented throughout their districts for the years of this study no matter how "rough" these numbers may be. No accommodation plan data were available from either the Metro or the Suburban school districts contacted for this study. These seemingly illogical numbers described above do, however, point to the probable inaccuracy of the databases used for the analysis in this study.


To review the data presented in this report overall, it is interesting to note three patterns in these special education referral and 504 Plan data. First, Figure 3 displays data by grade level for the referral numbers for the Metropolitan Minnesota city. These data indicate a higher number of referrals for special education assessments at Grade 8 during the school year 1997-98 with the number of referrals decreasing over grades 9 through 12. This pattern is also present within the data collected from the school districts in Greater Minnesota. Second, in considering the 504 Plan data, Figure 7 presents the number of students with accommodation plans throughout Minnesota for the school year 1998-99. The pattern in these statewide data appears somewhat different from the patterns that are reported for the individual school districts (see Figures 8 and 9). The greatest number of 504 Plans are provided for high school students statewide, which is not true for the local school districts where more junior high students use accommodation plans. Third, the patterns in the 504 Plan data displayed in Figures 7, 8, and 9 differ for the school year 1998-99. More accommodation plans were provided for 10th and 11th grade students statewide while more plans were provided for 7th and 8th grade students in both school districts from Greater Minnesota. In addition, more 504 Plans were provided for students in the smaller school district (n = 85) than for the larger school district (n = 48) over the years of this study.

Even so, there are no data presented in this report that definitively resolve the issue of increasing referrals for special education assessments or requests for 504 Plans due to the implementation of Basic Standards Tests in the state of Minnesota. None of the data displayed contain consistent patterns of increasing numbers that could point to obvious conclusions about the influence of high stakes testing on students with or without disabilities. There are three possible explanations for these results.

First, it may be true that increases in either referral or request numbers may not exist. While these data do not support this interpretation any more than an increase in numbers is supported, this explanation cannot be excluded based on these data. Second, it is possible that it is too early to make a definitive statement about the impact of the Basic Standards Tests on either referral or request numbers. The graduating class of 2000 will be the first class in Minnesota that has to pass the Basic Standards Tests in order to receive a high school diploma. As more students in the future are prevented from graduating from high school due to failing high stakes exams, referral and request numbers may increase. Finally, even slight increases in these numbers are important to report, but small discriminations are difficult to discern when the accuracy of the data is questionable.

Accessing these data was problematic, requiring much effort for both the researchers and school personnel. Except for one district, these data were not readily available. School personnel reported that the numbers of 504 Plans, especially for the earlier years considered by this study, are only "best guesses." In order to describe the accuracy of the data in this report, another brief telephone interview was conducted with those school personnel who provided data from each of the three data accessing sites. When asked to rate the accuracy of the data submitted for this study on a scale of "1" to "5" ("1" being the least accurate and "5" being the most accurate), the district in the Greater Minnesota city with more than 2,000 population reported that the special education data would be a "5" and the 504 Plan data would be a "4." The accuracy of these data for this district is supported by the emphasis on data collection by the administration and the required follow-up throughout the school year to access any missing data. These data are then used for district reports that are interpreted and translated into program improvement. For the school district from a city with a population of less than 2,000 in Greater Minnesota, the accuracy of the data for both special education referrals and 504 Plans was described as a "2." The inaccuracy of these data was attributed to the different data collection systems used in various buildings throughout the school district as well as changes in special education and administrative staff. This school district does use these data for informational and evaluation purposes. The data provided by the Urban district were described as between a "2" and a "3." Accuracy was increased in the final two years of reporting since one person followed-up to collect any missing data. But even for those data submitted, many forms were completed inaccurately, thus affecting the overall accuracy of these data. It is notable that these data are used for district reporting to determine district progress and program planning.

Given the inaccuracy of the data accessed for this study, as well as the continuing concerns about increasing referrals for special education assessments and requests for 504 Plans due to the implementation of the Basic Standards Tests, this issue remains an important question for further research. However, the following recommendations may have to be put into place before a definitive answer can be interpreted from data available in Minnesota school districts.



The results of this retrospective study of the unintended consequences of high stakes testing in Minnesota point to three recommendations for the consideration of this issue in the future.


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