Including Students with Disabilities in K-2 Academic Assessments
State academic assessments are required by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) starting in grade 3.1 Academic assessments administered in earlier grades (kindergarten through grade 2) often are used to measure progress or growth, for instructional decision making, to predict grade 3 summative assessment performance, and for tracking literacy for reading guarantees. These assessments are also used as part of the Office of Special Education Programs’ (OSEP) Results Driven Accountability (RDA) system in some State Systemic Improvement Plans (SSIPs), as either the State-Identified Measurable Result (SIMR) or as a measure of progress in a state’s evaluation plan for its SSIP.
More than half of the states have K-2 academic assessments that are either required or recommended. Data from those assessments may be used for state-level accountability or decision making. Many of these states allow districts to use one of several assessments, often providing them with a list of approved assessments. In some states, districts only report information on students as “on-track” or “not on-track,” and the state may have little information about what is actually occurring. In addition to K-2 assessments that a state may recommend or require, many districts administer assessments that are used to obtain data used for instructional decision making or to measure progress.
K-2 assessments have a variety of formats (e.g., selected response items, performance tasks). A few contain a combination of item-based and observational assessments that are scored using rubrics or checklists. The observational components of these assessments are similar to many preschool assessments, which are largely observational.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that all students with disabilities, including English learners with disabilities, participate in all state and district-wide assessment programs. This includes assessments administered in grades other than those used for ESEA accountability (e.g., K-2, high school grades not used for ESEA accountability).
Even though it is required that students with disabilities participate in state and district-wide assessments administered before grade 3, these students have sometimes been excluded. The purpose of this Brief is to provide an overview of issues related to the inclusion of students with disabilities and English learners with disabilities in early grade (i.e., K-2) assessments, and suggest strategies for improved practices.
Accessibility and Accommodations
Some academic assessments administered in grades K-2 may not provide accessibility features and accommodations needed by some students to participate in the assessments. Depending on the construct assessed (e.g., decoding, phonemic awareness), some accommodations may not be appropriate (e.g., text to speech) because they may change what the assessment is measuring. Still, there should be accessibility features and accommodations that allow students, including English learners with disabilities, to meaningfully access the assessment and show what they know and can do.
The lack of appropriate accessibility features and accommodations has been an especially challenging issue for students with sensory disabilities and for English learners with disabilities. For example, an early literacy or math skills assessment for K-2 students that has no way to present items to students who are blind or have low vision, may not produce valid scores or support valid interpretations because they violate the test construct of decoding print or identifying numbers.
Often K-2 assessments do not have braille or sign language interpretation accommodations. An added issue is that, even if these accommodations are available, many children do not know braille or American sign language (ASL) when they enter the school system. Those students in grades K-2 who do know braille have generally learned uncontracted braille, so it is important that the braille accommodation be provided using uncontracted braille.
English learners with disabilities, including those with sensory disabilities, face additional accessibility issues, even if they have mastered some braille or sign language in their native language. Having both disability and language-related accessibility needs complicates technically adequate measurement of these students.
Alternate assessments are required by IDEA for all state and district-wide K-2 assessment administrations for those students with the most significant cognitive disabilities who are unable to participate in the general assessment even with accommodations. This means that it is critical to evaluate each assessment administered in grades K-2 to determine whether: (a) it was designed with all students in mind, including those students with the most significant cognitive disabilities; (b) created to include a broad array of accessibility supports and accommodations; (c) pilot tested and field tested with students with the most significant cognitive disabilities included in those efforts;2 and, (d) checked to ensure that the results of the assessment provide meaningful results for these students for the intended purpose (e.g., instructional planning).
States that have implemented alternate assessments in grades K-2 have identified a need for them. This need may be determined by first administering the general assessment to the child and identifying ways in which it is not accessible. For example, Iowa’s decision flowchart indicates that if its Early Literacy assessment is not accessible for an individual child, it should be administered with alternate procedures (such as eye gaze, use of picture choices). Only when the student is not able to respond in a meaningful or timely manner is the State of Iowa’s Early Literacy Alternate Assessment to be administered.3
The decision about participation in a K-2 alternate assessment is difficult because criteria for participation in alternate assessments may only exist for alternate assessments based on alternate academic achievement standards (AA-AAAS) that are used for state ESEA accountability starting in grade 3. When they do exist for earlier grade assessments, they often look similar to those for assessments starting in grade 3.4
Implications for Special Education Identification
The use of tests administered before grade 3 can have implications for special education identification. There is a risk of misidentifying children who do not have disabilities as students with disabilities. Students with the most significant cognitive disabilities are generally identified prior to kindergarten, but many students with disabilities and English learners with disabilities are not yet identified in the early grades. Early assessment of students may lead to some students being inappropriately identified for special education services who may not have disabilities.
All children in grades K-2 are still learning language. Early language development is affected by life experiences. There is wide variation in baseline vocabulary levels. It is also common for young children to still be learning some speech sounds. If students are English learners, they may continue to develop English language skills for a longer period of time than their fluent-English speaking peers. Due to these issues, it can be difficult to interpret test findings, and a child may need good instructional interventions rather than special education services.
Children need to develop the skills they will use to become successful readers, and there is a need to identify possible skills deficits. Universal screener assessments are administered widely in grades K-2 to identify possible skills deficits. For those students identified as having a possible skill deficit there may be a need for a follow-up assessment to obtain more detailed data that can be used to guide decisions about the need for possible interventions. Unfortunately, many educators do not know how to use data from the assessments to identify needed interventions, and may start the special education identification process rather than identifying interventions that will improve literacy.
Language learning challenges are compounded for English learners who may have disabilities. Some students may be misclassified, which could result in invalid results if students are provided accommodations they should not have received. These issues have the potential to carry-over to other K-2 assessments.
States may want to consider several strategies that will improve the use of K-2 academic assessments for students with disabilities, including English learners with disabilities, as well as for students suspected as having a disability.
Several unique issues should be addressed when considering the inclusion of students with disabilities in K-2 academic assessments. The strategies in this Brief can be used to help ensure all students, including students with disabilities, English learners with disabilities, and students suspected as having disabilities, are appropriately included in these assessments.
Hinkle, A. R., Lazarus, S. S., Hall, S., Warren, S., Thurlow, M. L., & Liu, K. K. (2021). Understanding the consequences of assessment participation decisions for students with disabilities (School Leaders Series #2). Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) & National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO).
Liu, K. K., Wolforth, S., Thurlow, M. L., Jacques, C., Lazarus, S. S., & August, D. (2021). A framework for making decisions about participation in a state’s alternate ELP assessment (NCEO Report 426). National Center on Educational Outcomes.
Sabia, R., & Thurlow, M. L. (2019). Taking the alternate assessment does NOT mean education in a separate setting! (TIES Center Brief #2). TIES Center.
1 ESEA also requires that states administer an English language proficiency (ELP) assessment to students who are English learners in grades K-12. Although ELP assessments are not addressed in this Brief, many of the suggested considerations apply to those assessments. Liu et al. (2021) is a helpful resource for making decisions about participation in an alternate ELP assessment.
2 Because of small numbers, it may be appropriate to use cognitive laboratory procedures with these students.
3 See Iowa’s Early Literacy Assessment Students with Significant Cognitive Disabilities: Flowchart of Options for details.
4 For examples of participation guidelines, see Kansas’s guidelines for its Alternate Early Literacy Screener and Utah’s guidelines for its Kindergarten Entry and Exit Alternate Assessment.
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