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Progress Monitoring in an Inclusive Standards-based Assessment and Accountability System

Challenges to Using Progress Monitoring in the Context of Standards-based Assessment and Accountability Systems

While progress monitoring holds much promise for improved outcomes and higher expectations, there are contextual challenges that must be addressed. The challenges that are tied to the progress of students with disabilities and that affect the implementation of effective progress monitoring include:

  1. historical limited access to challenging curriculum, instruction, and assessment;
  2. concerns about the target of measurement, that is, whether only basic skills or a full range of rich and challenging content should be measured; and
  3. limited use of data for effective provision of instructional strategies, interventions, and supports.

Historical Limited Access to Challenging Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment

A key emphasis of standards-based reform is that all children must have access to varied and challenging curriculum and instruction that is aligned to and focused on the grade-level content and achievement standards. But standards-based systems are relatively recent and students with disabilities historically have not had full access to challenging curriculum, instruction, and assessment. Discussion leading up to the reauthorization of IDEA 1997 suggested that over 20 years of low expectations resulted in dismally low achievement for students with disabilities. The IEP process often contributed to the lowering of expectations for individual students – essentially defining a separate curriculum for the student - instead of resulting in a plan for the services and supports so that the student could be successful in the general curriculum, the challenging content same age peers were learning. Now as we look toward another reauthorization of the law, we realize that we have not as yet reached the goal of ensuring that all children with disabilities have access to, participate in, and make progress in the general curriculum that is built on grade-level challenging standards. This continuing legacy of low expectations is a foundational contextual challenge within which progress monitoring is implemented.

There is considerable rhetoric in some quarters that asserts all children can learn to grade-level content and achievement standards. There is considerable rhetoric in other quarters that asserts that NOT all children can learn to grade-level content and achievement standards and that it is unfair to schools, educators, and even the children to expect them to achieve to this level. There is general agreement that children in the earliest grades of school should be held to high expectations so that they do not fall behind from the beginning. This philosophy underlies the federal Reading First program.

There is a developing consensus that alternate achievement standards (defined through valid and documented methods to reflect the outcomes of the best possible instruction) are appropriate for a very small percentage of students who have significant cognitive disabilities. These are not lowered expectations; in states that have set these alternate achievement standards with research-based understanding of teaching and learning for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities, these alternate achievement standards set the bar and expectations for student achievement on the challenging content at very high and appropriate levels (Arnold, 2003; Olson, Mead, & Payne, 2002; Wiener, 2002).

There is not consensus on what high expectations mean for students with moderate to mild disabilities, sometimes called gap or gray area students. NCLB requires that states set expectations for the grade-level achievement of all students, and that schools are to be held accountable for the achievement of all students, as measured through the state assessment system. Using emerging data from these standards-based assessment systems in all states, we need to illuminate whether the gap or gray issues for these students are those of curriculum, instruction, assessment, or actual student need (Almond, Quenemoen, Olsen, & Thurlow, 2000; Quenemoen & Almond, 2001). We do not have adequate data to determine this empirically at this time, but as more students with disabilities are provided high quality instruction in the challenging curricula taught to their peers, and as all children are included in standards-based assessment systems, these data will emerge.

Progress monitoring assessment techniques should be part of these assessment systems. Progress monitoring can exist outside of standards-based curriculum, instruction, and assessment, but it will be limited in its effectiveness. As the National Research Council (1999) suggests, alignment between tests and standards is a necessary condition of the theory of action of standards-based reform, and that includes alignment of assessments used for the purpose of monitoring progress. Any state or district that hopes to use progress monitoring as a tool to ensure the highest possible outcomes for every student needs to ensure that the educational system itself—including curriculum, instruction, formative and summative assessments, professional development and school improvement processes—is aligned, coherent, and focused on ensuring that every child is being taught and is learning the grade-level content.

Concerns About the Target of Measurement

The target of measurement is another issue that generates controversy when measuring progress over time. Despite strong correlations between performance on basic skills and more complex skills, many educators express concerns about the need to balance the focus on developing basic skills in reading and mathematics with ensuring progress and achievement in the rich and challenging content beyond basic skills. Researchers (e.g., Lane & Silver, 1995; Oakes, 1990) have questioned whether the drill and practice of basic factual knowledge and computational skills in mathematics comes at the expense of work on complex tasks requiring mathematical reasoning and problem-solving, particularly for some groups of students. Similarly, Vinovskis (1996) argues that while providing books with limited vocabulary may help decoding, it stunts vocabulary development and prevents access to other challenging academic standards. Walmsley and Allington (1995) found that students with print disabilities spent a great deal of their language arts instruction in remedial programs designed to circumvent their decoding problems. Remediation programs are not, per se, a harmful activity for students with print disabilities; rather, the harm comes to students from opportunity lost for other important content.

As Walmsley and Allington (1995) described, students are commonly taken out of content area courses or even grade-level reading courses to create time for direct instruction of basic reading skills. One argument for this practice is that until the students can read independently, they cannot benefit from the existing curriculum in the content areas or from grade-level reading instruction. CAST, an educational research and development group, and the National Center on Accessing the Curriculum (NCAC) at CAST have worked to develop the concept of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as an alternative to this common practice. Instead, individual learner differences are considered from the start in the instructional process, and instruction, materials, and tools are made accessible for all students. Hitchcock, Meyer, Rose, and Jackson (2002), in describing UDL approaches, provide an example that illustrates how important content can be accessed by any student. In addition, they stress that what tools are used to provide access depends on what is being taught, that is, on the goal of instruction and measurement in a standards-based system. Their example is:

Suppose a student is assigned an Aesop’s fable to read. The purpose of this assignment determines the appropriate steps for making it accessible. Is the goal to learn to decode text, to learn comprehension strategies for extended passages, to build vocabulary, to learn the moral or point of the fable, to learn the common elements of any fable, to learn how to compare and contrast fables with news reports, to articulate the relationship between the fable and the overall culture? The scaffolds and supports that might be appropriate depend entirely on the purpose of the assignment.

If for example the purpose of the fable assignment were to become familiar with the elements commonly found in fables, then supporting word decoding, vocabulary, and comprehension of the story itself would not interfere with the learning challenge. Supports such as text-to-speech, linked vocabulary, or animations illustrating interactions between characters would support different students but still leave the appropriate kind of challenge for all learners. But if the goal were to provide practice in decoding and reading fluency, providing those same supports could undermine the learning challenge and actually impede access to learning. The reading support would eliminate the students’ opportunity to practice and work towards reading independence. (Hitchcock et al., 2002, p.15)

If some students are prevented from accessing the challenging content beyond decoding and fluency, their standards-based progress will suffer even as their basic skills develop. This does not discount the need for, or the value of teaching basic skills. Students need access to ALL essential skills and knowledge, and practices in teaching and in assessment will have to reflect that requirement. The CAST/NCAC example demonstrates the complex issues surrounding the target of measurement debate and how these issues relate to the need for effective instructional strategies, interventions, and support.

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