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Alternate Assessment: Teacher and State Experiences

State System Stories


From isolation to integration

For many years, state A's Special Education Division functioned autonomously with little to no communication with other divisions within the state Department of Education. Essentially, special education in state A was isolated from general education curriculum and standards. No state policies or guidelines existed for assessing or reporting student progress. Through the early 1990's, state assessment staff seemed to perceive students with significant cognitive disabilities as the responsibility of the Special Education Division.

In general, special education programs were not as valued as general education programs. Students with significant cognitive disabilities were taught functional life skills, standard academic curriculum was not required. Students in special education were isolated in special schools with little to no contact with general education curricula or peers. Little funding and few tools were provided to special education teachers and staff to help meet student educational needs.

The State Approach

After the passage of IDEA ‘97, state A reevaluated its approach to special education, recognizing that all students were to be included in statewide assessment programs. Development began in 1997 with full implementation in 2001 and revisions each year. An IEP team annually determines participation in the assessment by reviewing the student's profile, the state's guidelines for inclusion, and the specific participation guidelines for the alternate portfolio. The alternate assessment portfolio includes student work, parent/peer letters, videotapes and teacher data sheets. Content areas required by this state as of 2005 include English/Language Arts, Mathematics, Social Studies and Science. The content areas studied vary by grade.


Our respondents indicate that state A made a philosophical shift in how students with significant cognitive disabilities are viewed within the state Department of Education. The alternate assessment system has evolved significantly over the last decade. The assessment system is constantly transitioning to create a more equal assessment program for students with significant disabilities. With alternate assessment and accountability for all in state A, individuals with significant cognitive disabilities and their families now have a more meaningful educational experience. The state has gone:



No large scale assessment policies for students with significant cognitive disabilities other than exemption;

Limited collaboration between the exceptional children workgroup and assessment workgroup;

Alternate assessment scores not included in state-wide testing;

Academic standards not used for students with significant cognitive disabilities;

Professional development for special education teachers, para-professionals, and other staff serving students with significant cognitive disabilities inconsistent and limited in the state;

Limited transportation opportunities to the community for students with significant cognitive disabilities;

Many educators believing that students should be taught at a developmentally appropriate level with discrete skill training.

alternate assessment policies that ensure inclusion;

increased integration of staff and collaboration between Special Education Division and Assessment Division across numerous topics;

accountability for ALL students and schools;

all students in the state assessed through the same challenging academic content standards;

professional development for special educators more focused on academic standards and more consistent state-wide;

funding more readily available and increased for transportation into the community;

educators understanding the need for age-appropriate activities and teaching skills through activities that have meaning to the student.


From disconnect to communication

For many years, state B unintentionally limited educational opportunities and involvement of students with significant cognitive disabilities within the larger educational system. State staff had little communication or collaboration between divisions and the offices of curriculum and instruction focused their energies only on general education. The state education agency offered few professional development opportunities to local districts specifically focused on special education issues. No consistent curriculum for students with significant cognitive disabilities existed. IEP's were the only vehicle to show student achievement, but for students with significant cognitive disabilities they mostly focused on a life-skills approach to learning with little attention to academics. Local administrators appeared to focus their energy on general education and tended to ignore teachers in special education.

The State Approach

With the advent of IDEA and NCLB accountability requirements, state B started to make changes. Staff convened a large stakeholder group to define the philosophy and parameters for an alternate assessment approach. They used internal state staff with experience developing and judging portfolios to create an alternate assessment portfolio approach for students with serious cognitive disabilities.

State B's alternate assessment portfolio involves a yearlong process that includes student work measuring ability and progress levels. The original state alternate assessment portfolio focused on functional life skills and in 2003-2004, shifted to a more academic focus. Areas of student performance measured in the current alternate assessment include: (1) Reading, (2) Writing, and (3) Mathematics. A student's IEP team or the section 504 committee determine if the student has a serious cognitive deficit and qualifies to participate in the system.


Staff in state B who were directly involved in the evolution of the system report positive changes to special education and creation of a system of inclusion and accountability for students with significant cognitive disabilities. The following changes were reported:



Inconsistent curriculum for students with significant cognitive disabilities;

No state-wide assessment or accountability system for students with significant cognitive disabilities;

Little collaboration among state divisions;

Little or no awareness of special education services on the part of general education administration;

Insufficient funding/tools needed to support educational needs of students with significant cognitive disabilities;

Limited expectations for students with significant cognitive impairments.

consistent and challenging curriculum where students do more than thought possible;

a state-wide system that includes all students;

Exceptional Children, Testing & Accountability, and (middle and high school) Curriculum collaborating to refine essences to link them to grade level content standards in Math, science, English/Language Arts and Social studies;

increased knowledge of classroom activities of students and teachers in special education;

more academic resources and professional development available for teachers working with those students;

higher expectations, with students achieving more than thought possible.


"Now, the light is shining brighter on special education!"

State C had not involved students with significant cognitive disabilities in standards-based reforms accountability systems, although the students did participate in an alternate assessment. Collaboration among state divisions was sporadic. Communication about special education at the state level was limited. Special education assessment policies and procedures did not reflect evidence of academic instruction for students with significant cognitive disabilities. Inclusive settings were limited for students with significant cognitive disabilities.

The State Approach

Long before the passage of NCLB, state C recognized the need for state-wide information on the progress and success of students with significant cognitive disabilities. In the early 1990's, a task force was convened to identify the domains to be assessed and the issues to be addressed. A combination assessment system emerged in a pilot-test mode that included a portfolio, performance tasks and a parent checklist. The original alternate assessment focused on a life-skills curriculum including: (1) personal management, (2) career/vocational, and (3) community, (4) recreation/leisure, and (5) communication and decision making skills.

The current assessment system has shifted to assess reading and math objectives. The alternate assessment portfolio is a collection of student artifacts that demonstrate the student's attainment of the objectives. Student and parent involvement in the portfolio process are encouraged to help with student support and generalization of skills from school to home and the community.


As one of our respondents indicated, "The light is shining brighter on special education!" Students with significant cognitive disabilities are increasingly attended to as part of the overall system. Among the changes in the system of services:



States objectives for alternate assessment based on a life skills curriculum;

Professional development activities for special educators focused on life skills;

Limited collaboration between state level offices regarding special education;

Focus on special education at superintendent meetings tending to be legalistic and negative;

Limited resource allocations.

state objectives for alternate assessment based on reading and math content standards;

professional development activities for educators focusing on understanding content standards, writing mastery objectives, and teaching reading and math to students;

extensive collaboration between Divisions of Accountability & Assessment and Curriculum & Instruction and Special Education;

state superintendent meeting with local superintendents to discuss alternate assessment;

more resource allocations to purchase instructional materials to support reading and math instruction and for professional development of special educators in these content areas.


"Think differently! Push the limit"

At one time, State D focused more on where students with significant cognitive disabilities were placed than on what they learned. State level special education staffs were isolated from other state units. Stakeholder groups had little diverse representation from parties outside of special education. Students with significant cognitive disabilities were not held to the same standards as students who participated in general education curriculum. Special education leaders did not encourage students with significant cognitive disabilities to focus their curriculum on academics. Frequently, special educators in state D were left out of the discussions on state standards. Training, support and professional development in content areas were very limited.

The State Approach

Developed in response to the Reform Act of 1993, state D's alternate assessment program was designed to ensure that students with significant cognitive disabilities were included in statewide assessment. IEP team decisions have led to approximately 1% of students in state D's public school system participating in the alternate assessment.

State D's current alternate assessment system consists of an annual portfolio of materials including student work, instructional data, videotapes, and other information which supports student performance in a particular subject. Portfolios are scored with criteria including: (1) completeness of portfolio; (2) level of complexity in relation to the curriculum framework standards; (3) accuracy of student response/performance; (4) student independence in tasks; (5) frequency of self-evaluation; and (6) number of instructional approaches and contexts in which the student demonstrates knowledge and skills. Statewide advisors who developed the alternate assessment portfolio for state D include special educators, content specialists, assessment experts, administrators/principals, higher education faculty, and advocates.


As one respondent indicated, "there was always a desire to include all students, but no one ever thought to use curriculum as a means to obtain full inclusion." Now, with inclusive accountability and a restructuring of the academic system in special education, children with significant cognitive impairments are contributing to the education system, and more importantly, they are learning! When the state challenged themselves to think differently and push the limit, they went:



Communication gaps among education divisions at the state level;

Stakeholder groups with little diversity;

Minimal state level teaching resources for teachers of students with significant cognitive disabilities;

Lack of training, support and professional development for special educators;

Focus on student placement, not what they learned;

Special education exempt from content and achievement standards.

alternate assessment initiative from Instruction and Curriculum division bridged to assessment and special education units;

strong & diverse stakeholder groups with both general educators and special educators represented;

high quality teaching resources;

increased opportunities for professional development & building teacher network (promote leadership, train specialists, assist and advise department);

using curriculum and instruction, focusing on what students with significant cognitive impairments learn;

accountability for ALL students.


These eleven stories make it clear that, given the right conditions, alternate assessment with high standards can lead to positive change in the lives of children with significant cognitive disabilities and those who serve them. While there is no doubt that the alternate assessment process has created challenges for educators and schools, benefits are now starting to be recognized. Consistent with the teacher and system level stories we have reported, Browder, Spooner, Algozzine, Ahlgrim-Delzell, Flowers and Karvonen (2003) recognize the promises of alternate assessments for students with significant cognitive disabilities. Promises identified for students who participate in the alternate assessment process include: (1) greater consideration in school and state policy decisions; (2) increased expectations; (3) improved access to the same curriculum and assessment on the same standards; and (4) use of alternate assessment outcomes to improve instructional programs at the teacher and classroom level. These promises will help students who participate in the alternate assessment system become a valuable, included part of the school system, not the invisible students from the past. Equally important, their teachers are increasingly seen as key players in the overall system.

Research addressing changes in the alternate assessment process include Thompson and Thurlow's (2003) survey of state emerging issues, trends, and accomplishments related to alternate assessment and No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001 adds evidence of positive change. Participants included state directors of special education and other state officials who represent special education, standards, assessment, and accountability. Results suggest: (1) states increasingly identifying positive consequences of student participation in standards, assessments and accountability; (2) more states studying achievement trends for students with disabilities; (3) increasing focus on achievement level descriptors for all students, (4) special education directors more directly involved in their state's development of Adequate Yearly Progress Reports required by NCLB; and (5) increased attention to access to assessment through elements of universal design and accessible computer based tests (2003).

As the systems change and adapt, the challenge is to take the lessons of these positive stories and this emerging research and make them the standard throughout the nation. We encourage the reader to seek out and share similar stories in your own schools, districts, and states. Let's continue to learn together what is really possible.

We would like to give a special thanks to those teachers and state level staff who shared their stories without which we would not have been able to write this document. We would also like to acknowledge the guidance provided by the members of the Special Education State Collaborative on Assessment and Student Standards regarding the content and tone of this final version. Finally, thanks go to Judy Johns of the ASC/MSRRC team for her artful assistance with format.


Browder, D., Spooner, F., Algozzine, R., Ahlgrim-Delzell, L., Flowers, C. & Karvonen, M. (2003). What we know and need to know about alternate assessment. Exceptional Children, 70 (1), 45(17). Retrieved January 22, 2004 from Infotrac.

Kleinert, H. L., Kearns, J.C. (2001). Alternate Assessment: Measuring outcomes and supports for students with disabilities. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Quenemoen, R., Thompson, S. & Thurlow, M. (2003). Measuring academic achievement of students with significant cognitive disabilities: Building understanding of alternate assessment scoring criteria (Synthesis Report 50). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes. Retrieved September 28, 2004, from the World Wide Web: http://education.umn.edu/NCEO/OnlinePubs/Synthesis50.html

Thompson, S., & Thurlow, M. (2003). 2003 State special education outcomes: Marching on. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes. Retrieved March 16, 2005, from the World Wide Web: http://education.umn.edu/NCEO/OnlinePubs/2003StateReport.htm.

This document was developed pursuant to cooperative agreement # H326R040004, CFDA 84.326R between the Alliance for Systems Change/'Mid-South Regional Resource Center, Interdisciplinary Human Development Institute, University of Kentucky and the Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education. However, the opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs and no endorsement by that office should be inferred.

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