NCEO Policy Directions

Published by the National Center on Educational Outcomes
Number 3 / November 1994

Educational Accountability for Students with Disabilities

This document has been archived by NCEO because some of the information it contains is out of date.

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

Ysseldyke, J., Thurlow, M., & Geenen, K. (1994). Educational accountabilitiy for studients with disabilities (Policy Directions No. 3). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes. Retrieved [today's date], from the World Wide Web:


There is a new buzz word in current discussions about educational reform: Accountability. It's being defined as the use of systematic methods to demonstrate to individuals, inside and outside of the education system, that schools are moving in desired directions. Policymakers, school administrators, and the general public have joined in the debate. They want to know: Is education in the U.S. producing the results it should?

Because documenting educational effectiveness has been addressed from the local school level to the national level, many different accountability practices have been created. That is, for most students...until recently.

For students with disabilities, discussions about accountability have been restricted to "process." This means that special education has focused on child count information: How many students, and with which disabilities, are on Individualized Education Programs (IEPs)? Where do these students receive services? Are the proper procedures followed in identifying students with disabilities?

The child count and compliance data do not demonstrate that students are achieving desired results. And, using a system that monitors the process of education does not guarantee positive student outcomes. What education needs is a consistent set of accountability procedures for all students.

As educators take steps toward a new and inclusive accountability system, they need to look at:

  1. Possible alternative approaches to accountability
  2. Data needed to demonstrate that education is working for students with disabilities
  3. Barriers to the collection of these data.

Armed with this information, educators can find ways to overcome barriers to implementing new forms of accountability.

Alternative Approaches

There are a number of alternative approaches that could indicate the degree to which education is working for students, including students with disabilities. Many of the following options seek to recognize student progress rather than monitor the educational process.

Some of these alternatives to child count are more effective than others at including all students. For example, students with disabilities have historically been excluded from participating in norm-referenced tests. Greater promise may exist in programs that focus on results or outcomes by using performance assessments.

Data Needed

When establishing an accountability system, first agree on what types of data are most useful and available for documenting the progress of education. Most accountability programs that include students with disabilities collect input, process, and outcome data.

Collecting input and process data provides information on the contexts in which children learn. However, this information should only supplement data collected on student outcomes. See the chart below for possible types of data to collect.

Possible Types of Data to Collect

  • Input Data help to plan future budgets, identify the cost efficiency of certain programs, and indicate the needs of groups of students.
    1. Program Resources (staff, instruction, and other resources allotted to each child)
    2. Student Characteristics (student mobility, number receiving free/reduced lunch)
  • Process Data include information on the type and quality of, and access to certain programs.
    1. Opportunity to Learn
    2. Inclusion of Students with Disabilities in General Education
    3. Teacher Expectations for Individual Pupil Performance
    4. Extent to which IEPs Translate into Instruction
  • Outcomes Data contain the most crucial information for making decisions about whether education is working for students.
    1. Academic and Functional Skills
    2. Valued Social and Emotional Outcomes
    3. Generalization of School Learning to Everyday Life
    4. Student and Parent Satisfaction
    5. Independent Living
    6. Community Participation
    7. Extent to Which the "Product" of Schools Meets the Needs of the Labor Market

Data that Administrators Need to Demonstrate that Education Works for Students with Disabilities

Barriers to Collecting Data

Some of the issues encountered in collecting accountability data pose general challenges, while others become barriers to facilitating the participation of students with disabilities in assessment programs. But there is one over-riding issue that will influence the resolution of all of the other barriers to collecting accountability data: competing attitudes. This includes the attitudes of educators, policymakers, parents, and students.


Stakeholder Commitment and Mistrust

Stakeholders may not be ready to commit to accounting for the results of education or collection of data. They might be concerned that a shift of resources from direct service to data collection would cause educators and the public to become skeptical. They might ask: Is it worth it? Or, they may be fearful that an accountability program would cause them to lose local control.

Educational reform can sometimes foster mistrust among stakeholders. The role of the state needs to be determined without increasing stakeholder fear of losing local control. Decide whether the state's role should be a top-down or a bottom-up approach to collecting accountability data. This can have a big impact. For example, if the state decides to mandate an assessment in order to facilitate data aggregation, the instruction and testing decisions in local schools will be affected.


Educator Responsibility

Some educators may be reluctant to be held responsible for the educational gains of students with disabilities or low performing students, especially if sanctions and rewards are steep. But the fact is, students with disabilities now spend more time in general education than special education. Responsibility for student learning should reflect the multiple contexts in which students are being educated. But, this is easier said than done.

Collecting accountability data on how well students with disabilities perform also poses a challenge. Often, these students have not experienced inclusion in traditional assessments. The practice of collecting data on some but not all students has led to sorting and ranking. Equitable policy decisions and fair comparisons between schools, districts, and states require that data collection be systematic and accurately represent the educational needs and accomplishments of all students, not just general education students.

Common reasons for educators to exclude students with disabilities in testing programs are:

As educators move beyond the issue of inclusion, agreeing on outcomes and standards becomes the next controversial issue. To reach consensus among all stakeholders, they must define outcomes that are important for all students without lowering the standards; balance post-school transition and academic outcomes; and set quality outcomes and standards that are congruent with those of other states.


Using Assessments to Measure and Report Data

Education must provide all students with the opportunity to learn the skills necessary to achieve the set standards. Assessments should reflect what these students are learning in the classroom. To monitor whether this is happening, states use curriculum-test alignment.

It is possible that states could decide to first administer assessments that reflect state outcomes and then expect curriculum adjustments to follow. Or states could modify the curriculum first and then develop assessments that are instructionally relevant and sensitive to the change. But, lately the issue of assessments has beome more complex. As educators attempt to document higher-order skills such as creativity, synthesis, and interpersonal skills, they are finding less agreement on how to measure complex skills.

Once assessments are administered, what information should be reported and how should it be reported? States need to be able to not only identify students with disabilities in large data sets, but also to:

When an accountability program is in place, developers, participants, and consumers may be concerned that there is no utility to the program. There is a risk that no one will understand or benefit from the information presented, particularly if a lot of contextual data are included. The utility of an accountability program rests on its ability to use the data to promote positive educational reform.

Issues Encountered

Competing Attitudes
Worth?, Fear, and Control
Role of the State
Sanctions and Rewards
Responsibility for Student Learning
Inclusion in Assessment
Nongraded Classrooms
Agreeing on Outcomes and Standards
Curriculum-Test Alignment
Measuring Complex Skills
What and How to Report the Information
Perception that Data Have No Utility

Overcoming Barriers

To overcome barriers in establishing new forms of accountability systems, choose options that consider the state's role. There are a number of strategies, but staff development and stakeholder involvement are crucial to implementing a successful accountability program.


Essential Strategies

Offering staff development increases stakeholders' knowledge of and reduces the fear of accountability systems. Those fears often come from a lack of technical knowledge about the systems and how to implement them.

Involving stakeholders up front decreases the fear of losing local control. It also increases the likelihood that the program will build upon pre-existing local accountability structures and will include instructionally relevant and intelligible data on outcomes that are important to parents, advocates, teachers, employers, and students.


State Mandates and Guidelines

Another strategy is for states to mandate the collection of accountability data on all students. States must be prepared to enforce the policy and to provide programs that offer the technical support necessary to ensure success.

If states develop guidelines for assessment accommodations and participation in assessments, they can help overcome barriers to implementing accountability systems. But, this will happen only if they include students with disabilities in testing.

To increase the participation of students with disabilities, states need to develop outcomes that are comprehensive and broad enough to be meaningful for all students. Progress toward achieving the outcomes may be monitored via a state data base that allows outcomes and contextual data to be stored and analyzed. The data base must be set up to allow separating out assessment data for students with disabilities, a capability needed to examine the effectiveness of special education and other programs.

State mandates are preferable to possible federal mandates or rewards and sanctions as part of special education funding. States also need to be aware that direct federal involvement may meet resistance because:


Achieving Success

Success depends on being able to provide a system that creates an environment in which all students can and will learn. This requires greater participation on the part of educators. Any resistance could be overcome by providing incentives such as more focused technical assistance, or accreditation for schools that facilitate the progress of their students toward state outcomes.

A successful, yet simple strategy to overcome barriers is to learn from past efforts. Those developing and implementing accountability programs can benefit from ideas and examples of effective programs used by other states. NCEO's report, Implementation of Alternative Methods for Making Educational Accountability Decisions for Students with Disabilities, summarizes and provides concrete examples of six states' approaches to accountability.

What to Consider in Overcoming Barriers

Other Staff Development
Get Stakeholders Involved Up Front
Mandate Collection of Accountability Data
Develop State Guidelines on Inclusion and on Accommodation
Build a Comprehensive State Data Base
Gain Consensus on Outcomes
Include Students with Disabilities in Testing
Disaggregate Data
Hold Systems Accountable for Creating an Environment in Which Students Can and Will Learn
Provide Incentives
Accredit Local School Systems
Learn from Other States


Further Information

Implementation of Alternative Methods for Making Educational Accountability Decisions for Students with Disabilities (Synthesis Report 12). Ysseldyke, J.E., Thurlow, M. L. & Geenen, K.M. (1994). Minneapolis, MN: National Center on Educational Outcomes.

Issues and Options in Outcomes-Based Accountability for Students with Disabilities. Center for Policy Options (1994). College Park, MD: Author.

Opportunity-to-Learn Standards (Synthesis Report 14).Ysseldyke, J. E., Thurlow, M. L., & Shin, H. (1994). Minneapolis, MN: National Center on Educational Outcomes

Views on Inclusion and Testing Accommodations for Students with Disabilities. Ysseldyke, J.E., & Thurlow, M. L. eds. (1993). Minneapolis, MN: National Center on Educational Outcomes.

NOTE: This document was prepared with input from participants in a meeting of selected state personnel held in Chicago in September 1993. Representatives from the following states participated in this meeting: Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, and West Virginia. Some of the ideas reflected in this document are based also on discussion at a special forum on educational evaluation sponsored by the National Association of State Directors of Special Education in August 1993.

This report was prepared by Jim Ysseldyke, Martha Thurlow, and Kristin Geenen, with input from many individuals.