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Alternate Assessment: Teacher and State Experiences

Laura Moore-Lamminen and Ken Olsen
Alliance for Systems Change/
Mid-South Regional Resource Center (ASC/MSRRC)
Interdisciplinary Human Development Institute
University of Kentucky

Alliance for Systems Change
Mid-South Regional Resource Center: Helping Agencies Make A Difference


Has alternate assessment helped revamp special education services and practice for students with significant cognitive impairments? The following paper includes true stories from teachers and state level staff who have seen improvements in both the education system and lives of individuals with significant cognitive impairments. While challenges exist with alternate assessment, these stories support emerging research in demonstrating the positive effects it can have on attitudes, practices and student outcomes.

With the 1997 amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) came a new challenge for educators, administrators, children and parents. For the first time, all school districts were being held accountable for special education practices and for the learning of all students within each state's large scale assessment program. Among the most challenging requirements was the expectation that by July of 2000, students with the most significant disabilities would be assessed with some form of state-wide alternate assessment and that the results would be made available and reported to the public. Subsequently, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) strengthened those requirements by demanding that the results of alternate assessments using alternate achievement standards be included in calculations of each school's and district's "Adequate Yearly Progress" (i.e., if a threshold number of students was assessed).Most states had some form of an alternate assessment in operation by the July 2000 deadline. Because of the diversity of characteristics within the eligible student population many states opted for portfolios or "bodies of evidence" (Quenemoen, Thompson & Thurlow, 2003).

The Challenges

Educators have expressed concerns about the increased paperwork and documentation from alternate assessment (Kleinert & Kearns, 2001). Some are concerned that incorporating alternate assessment within the general education system of accountability assumes a uniformity that ignores the unique needs of students who, by definition, need special education and related services. As one teacher stated,

"I was hesitant to accept that any system or program could be flexible enough to address the many learning outcomes these students exhibited on their Individualized Education Plans."

Portfolios and bodies of evidence require extensive amounts of work on the part of the teacher and usually incorporate a specific approach to documenting the teaching-learning process. As one alternate assessment coordinator recognized, "Alternate assessment adds more paperwork and data records for teachers." Some teachers and parents question whether the results obtained are in balance with the amount of time spent (i.e., the time to document, report and score the information takes too much time away from instruction). Additionally, others are concerned that, in the end, the documentation reflects more on the ability of the teacher to produce a good document than on whether a student is receiving a quality education.

Considering all the criticism, the key question is whether there is sufficient benefit from alternate assessment. While hard evidence is still emerging and multiple studies of effects have not been conducted nation-wide, we are learning that there can be significant benefits for students, teachers and schools as well as at district, state and national levels, when alternate assessment is implemented well. We have gathered a number of reports from teachers and state level staff regarding some of those benefits. We found that before these respondents seriously tried to implement an alternate assessment as part of their institutional system, few believed that alternate assessment would be worth the effort. After implementing alternate assessment programs, however, all respondents had positive experiences to share.

We begin with stories from teachers about seven students who have benefited from alternate assessment practices. Following the teacher stories, four state stories about system-wide effects are illustrated. We close with some conclusions about the possible impact of alternate assessment.

The reader is free to use this document in its entirety or any part of it in a training, sharing or policy development effort. Some suggested uses:

  • Select a few stories to include in a training manual or to share during a training session,
  • Share a few stories as examples and ask participants to write their own story using the same format, Use some of the stories to stimulate discussion about the intended and unintended effects of alternate assessment,
  • Put the quotes from the teacher stories in a list and use the list in an orientation (e.g., by asking, "Which of these are real quotes from teachers?" and then debriefing about what is possible),
  • Provide all eleven stories to an alternate assessment development team to read and have them draw their own conclusions about how best to approach the work,
  • Share the stories with the state large scale assessment technical advisory committee, or
  • Use a few stories to bolster a request to the state legislature when asking for an increase in funding for alternate assessment.

We make no apology for the fact that these are not randomly selected stories, because our question was not about averages or norms, but about what can be accomplished with the best aspects of alternate assessment with alternate achievement standards. However, we think that these stories are not unique. We believe that there are hundreds of these scenarios emerging across the United States and we encourage readers to look for and share others. Throughout this paper we maintain the anonymity of the systems and individuals involved because our respondents' descriptions of the "Background" do not always reflect well on the teacher, the school, the district or the state. In contrast, the good news can be found in the "Effects" sections.