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Special Education Testing Standards May Soon Be Tightened


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The U.S. Department of Education wants to do away with a rule that allows states to count some students with disabilities as academically proficient even if they do not meet grade-level standards.

In a proposal published in the Federal Register late last week, the Education Department formally signaled its intention to end what’s known as the “2 percent rule.”

Under the current policy, some students with disabilities are tested under modified academic achievement standards. States are allowed to count as many as 2 percent of all students as proficient under the No Child Left Behind Act for taking such alternate assessments.

Now, the Education Department is looking to transition away from that approach. Under the agency’s proposal, schools would no longer be able to rely on the modified standards after this school year. Instead, they would be expected to have students take general assessments meeting college and career ready standards.

“We have to expect the very best from our students and tell the truth about student performance, to prepare them for college and career,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement. “That means no longer allowing the achievement of students with disabilities to be measured by these alternate assessments aligned to modified achievement standards. This prevents these students from reaching their full potential, and prevents our country from benefitting from that potential.”

Even under the proposed change, students with the most significant cognitive disabilities — as many as 1 percent of all students — would still be allowed to take tests based on “alternate academic achievement standards,” according to the proposal. Rather, the shift away from modified standards is intended to raise expectations for students who can make academic progress when provided with the appropriate supports and instruction, the Education Department said.

The proposal follows through on a pledge Duncan made more than two years ago when he told disability advocates that he wanted to move away from the 2 percent rule.

It’s also a plan that’s been widely favored by disability advocacy organizations. Just last month a coalition of more than 100 groups wrote to President Barack Obama to urge the administration to end the 2 percent rule.

The Education Department is seeking public comment on the proposed rule change through Oct. 7.

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Comments (17 Responses)

  1. Michelle Davis says:

    My first reaction is “finally!”. My second reaction is concern that another wave of capable students will be removed from the diploma outcome by the IEP team. Most people would likely say ‘what’s the big deal….parents would just not allow that!’. Unfortunately, many don’t know that in most states, it would take a lengthy and expensive hearing for parents to stop the IEP team decision. So I’d like to see this implemented paired with law changes that truly make parents an equal partner with the school team.

  2. Kathleen Dowd says:

    If this changes, will the standardized test scores of special needs students still be included in deciding Adequate Yearly Progress for the school? These test scores drag down the scores of the entire school. This has never made sense to me. In addition, I believe it is inappropriate to make these students take tests that are way above their academic ability. In fact, it seems cruel. There is a great deal of pressure involved in taking these tests ( even when extra time is allowed) and it’s a set-up for failure. Most unkind, in my opinion. I have worked in special education since 2001 as an Intensive Needs Paraprofessional and am currently in a graduate program in Special Education. This is an issue that needs careful examination and consideration. Of course, we want special needs students to have a ‘free and appropriate education’ – the question is, is it really appropriate for them to be held to the same standards as students without disabilities? We need to find a middle ground in fairness to these students.

  3. Heather Harlan says:

    I happen to be a parent of a child who is on a Iep in the state of Texas that is having to take the same state test star test and is now being told if she can’t pass the reading test that she will not be able to graduate my child is a honor role student and is taking regular class and personally I do not think its fair to her that she is being threatened that she can’t graduate just because she can’t pass a non accommodated test .. The pressure is completely overwhelming for her and not to mention you want these kids who have disabilities take the same test as the others but offer no reading concepts class in the schools there is a writing class yes but I mean really to me making children with disabilities take the same test in my eyes is discrimination.

  4. Rebecca Hanberry says:

    @Kathleen Dowd…Absolutely agree! Working on this issue with a few others right now in Louisiana. Any chance. You could contact me at

  5. Marilynne Bell says:

    I can only speak for my state and from my experiences- the parents are a part of the IEP team and the knowledge provided by parents is respected and taken into consideration. As a parent of two, who had IEPs, and as an educator (M.Ed.), it is concerning to read that the Dept. of Ed. along with so many parents, advocacy groups et al., believe students are receiving short shrift because they take an alternate test. The message: if it’s SpEd., it must be lack luster and substandard. If one thinks a student with documented specific learning challenges- who qualifies for the alternate test- who has been working diligently to learn and achieve, should take the same assessments that students performing ‘at or above grade level’ stress over, I can state with confidence – from experience- the only outcome: (consistently proves to be) – discouragement and frustration for the student (and the educator). My only conclusion after reading this is the ‘concerned groups’ are not responding to the educational and/or academic needs of their children but to their attorneys and unresolved anger. It is time to address how we measure achievement that realistically takes into account substantive diagnosed learning differences in order to maximize each person’s learning.

  6. Linda E. Spencer, Ph.D. says:

    There is a difference between modified content for a test and modified presentation. For a child with a Reading Disability, if the purpose of the test is to assess how much content has been learned in a content class, the Reading Disability will prevent the student from demonstrating how much content she has mastered. For students with ADHD or slow processing speed, providing extended time may help the student to retrieve content information in a way that makes it reasonable to compare his content mastery to that of typical learners. However, the real limitation of all of the testing is that the data are all cross-sectional rather than longitudinal. Moreover, the tests can change from year to year. That means that it is pretty nearly impossible for anyone to look at a single student and chart, over time, the changes in that student’s level of mastery, and that is the critical issue. As long as there is no baseline for a student, nobody really knows how that student is doing. If you want to know, you have to administer standardized formal assessments.

  7. Goldie Williams says:

    In my school district, parents aren’t respected and talked down to at 504 or IEP meetings. They are made to feel inferior and told that the professionals know more the parents do. Our son has not been able to get a 504 plan from his school district because of his grades even though he needs to have accommodations. They don’t go to mediation. They go directly to due process because they don’t believe in mediation.

  8. Carol Conti says:

    “…the shift away from modified standards is intended to raise expectations for students who can make academic progress when provided with the appropriate supports and instruction, the Education Department said.” This quote is taken directly from the article. To me, this statement is implying that students who CAN make academic progress are NOT making progress because they are using alternate assessments aligned to modified achievement standards. It is implying that student’s ability to achieve is somehow being stifled by the same modified achievement standards that were put in place to assist the student to be successful. The quote also says that these students could make more academic progress “when provided with the appropriate supports and instruction.” Who will define “appropriate supports and instruction?” Isn’t that just a different phrase for modifiying what is being taught so that the student will be more successful? Isn’t that what they are trying to do away with? Just saying…

  9. Tara Kaczorowski says:

    I agree with the premise…we shouldn’t need to adapt standards if we provide the proper supports for these students. The problem is we are NOT providing the proper supports because of constant budget cuts. We cannot expect to do more with less. Throwing a dozen students with disabilities in the same “inclusion” class because thats all the special ed teacher can fit in his/her schedule does not qualify as proper supports. If we want our kids to rise to their fullest academic potential, we need to be able to provide them the supports guaranteed to them by IDEA.

  10. Crystal Dreyer says:

    I certainly agree with helping ALL children to reach their maximum potential in life. Academics, however, may not be a realistic goal for some. As a special education teacher for 16 years, I have served many students that need a functional life skills curriculum. Their goals should focus on maximizing independence, communication, socialization, behavior and daily life skills, including basic self-care. Requiring these students to take the alternate assessments is a waste of valuable teaching moments. My belief, along with many other teachers (teaching the severely disabled), and the parents of these students, is that we shouldn’t be required to teach extended standards or test students that have an IQ below 40 or 50. The time wasted on non-applicable goals, could be better used in teaching realistic life skills. If you have a student that will never be able to live alone in society, have a job, or can’t care for their basic needs (toileting, feeding, etc.), why force them to work towards goals that have no meaning? I teach in a public day school that serves only students with the most severe disabilities in the county. We are reported as a failing school because of these assessments, and let me tell you, these children are NOT failing! They are making progress and thriving in an environment that is nurturing and loving. I get it! We don’t want any child left behind! The thing is, if the education lawmakers truly understood this severely disabled population, they would see that it is almost absurd to require these students to work towards extended academic standards and participate in alternate assessments. It is so inappropriate! It is embarrassing and unacceptable that our school is reported as a “failing school” based on assessments that are meaningless to our students. I have the highest expectations for all of my students, but that might mean that before they graduate at 21, they have learned to toilet themselves, dress themselves, or simply express a need or be able to answer a yes/no question (Are you hungry? Are you hurting? Are you finished?). Teaching safety skills and daily living skills is relevant to their life. Having them identify idioms is not! Yes! Please make sure that students with disabilities have every opportunity to reach their full potential, but remember that for many of the most severe, academics is NOT appropriate. My personal opinion is that the most severe population often gets left out of the education discussion. They are being served every day by wonderful, loving, nurturing teachers and staff. My wish would be for these lawmakers to come spend one day at our special school. Not only would they seek to change the requirements, they may seek a change within themselves! These children touch lives every day!
    Thank you!
    Crystal Dreyer

  11. Suzette says:

    Amen to Crystal Dreyer! While our schools do include daily living skills, I’d like to see a more intensive focus on it. I’ve been taking my high-school aged son with Down Syndrome to one-hour weekly OT sessions outside of school for about a year and a half (in addition to monthly OT consult in the school) mainly to gain better use of his hands. He really needs all those daily living skills. I take him during the school day and could take him for more time but it becomes disruptive to his school day and my schedule. It’s hard to do it outside of school as there are only so many hours in the day and I have another son with a different disability. I do have to admit our schools put a lot of effort into including the special classes in the mainstream school activities, and the special ed kids are treated well by the other students, generally.

  12. Cindy McDowell says:

    If all students were exactly the same, on grade level, there would be no need for Special Education in the first place. Requiring learning disabled students, students with emotional disturbances, students with autism and so on, to take the standard test that non disabled peers must take is unfair to each and every student with a disability.

    Our school district tries very hard to include every special education student in the regular administration but many of our children are unable to pass the test. Wake up and smell the coffee. Not every child will ever pass the test.

  13. Misty Gate says:

    We need to stop promoting any student that can’t do the work –PERIOD. Minimally we need to hold back a student with a disability up to 3 years , which will bring them to the “21” years age.

    I have a child with Autism. I’ve watched too many students being promoted and unable to be included because they are so far behind.

  14. ernestine daugherty says:

    I don’t really think they are saying that the Severe and Profound students should take these assessments. They are talking about those students who have have learning deficits (those who are slow to process and retain information). I am a special education teacher and have been teaching special education for about 19 years. It has been my experience that students can learn if they are taught in a way that they can receive and internalize the information. I have been surprised on many occasions at students who are able to perform mathematical computations at the same level as their non-disabled peers. They may be a little slower at getting the job done, but they do it. I think with that very excellent accommodation TIME that is given these students, they are able to get it. However, I think that the way special education students progress best is if they are in a learning environment where the Administration believes in them, includes them and treats them like they treat the non-disabled students and reinforces their inclusion throughout the school. This is where they thrive, progress and are able to move forward and be successful. I believe that our special education students can achieve great things and we should not minimize their learning. They may have to have accommodations in order to be successful, but we can give them the accommodations that they need, but keep the expectations high for them.

  15. Malia Hollowell says:

    I am a fairly new special education teacher and I still have a hard time wrapping my head around this concept. I teach moderate to severe students, and I have difficulty when it comes time to “test” our students. Recyclying? Life cycle? I agree with so many of you, are this concepts really going to help prepare them for the college and career ready standards? I would be elated if I could teach these high achieving(in their own right), awesome kido’s to use the restroom, or put on their coats!! I will sign up to have these people come spend a day in my room so see how it really is. You can’t take practically everything away and then lay high expectations on the teachers, staff and students.

  16. Anne Filyaw says:

    I have been Transition Coordinator for Programs for Exceptional Children for 20 years and I witnessed positive and negative aspects related to expectations set forth for “all” students which clearly knock out an extremely high population of students with disabilities. At one point, our state had three means of earning a State High School Diploma, general ed course of study, tech prep course of study, and college prep course of study. Then in late 90’s the general ed course of study was eliminated and we were left with tech prep (more specific skill/ hands on leading to post-secondary two year technical college participation and/or straight into employment with skills such as welding, electrician, etc.) and the college prep course of study ( required academic preparation for 4 year college). Then four to five years ago they eliminated the tech prep course of study and only have academic course of study preparing students for attending four year colleges. Each changed affected large populations of our students with disabilities. Students that at one time were able to complete high school with a SC State Diploma. We service 2000+ students with disabilities ranging from all categories Speech Only students, students with specific learning disabilities, and all levels of intellectual disabilities. When all three courses of study were offerred we had a majority of students with mild intellectual disabilities able to participate and succeed in obtaining a state high diploma. When it went to two courses of study numbers of students with disabilities participating successfully in obtaining a State High School Diploma course of student decreased some but that was understandable. However, when the only course of study left is college preparation (4 year) course of study, our numbers of students with disabilities participating and earning state high school diplomas substantially decreased even though we do our best to include and support. We even encouraged students if it was necessary, to stay an extra year in high school to enable him/her to earn a State High School Diploma. Then, schools/districts began getting punished for students not graduating high school with a State Diploma in four years. Then administration, teachers, students became frustrated and students would quit. Students saw no point in attending school if they could no longer earn a state high school diploma even with supports and accommodations and modifications. All of our students that do not graduate with a State Issued High School Diploma are counted as “drop outs” even if he/she earns an Attendance Certificate. Then our District saw a program in NC and put in place a District Issued Employment Diploma for those students with disabilities that were now not being successful meeting such high expections in order to keep them in school. This district diploma is comprised of rigorus academics taught by Special Ed Teachers, some academics and electives are also within Regular Ed and Special Ed and then a requirement of work experience and community based employment training was included so our students could go to work when exiting school. Of course we still had a students falling within the Intellectual Disability Moderate and Severe range unable to be successul in these academics (our Alternate Assessment students). Academics are modified to be presented more on students functioning level in the Distrct Diploma Program and again it includes so many required hours of community based employment experiences and a number of paid employment hours along with 4 Eng, 4 Math, 3 Scien, 3 Social Studies, but they are not required to pass the State Exit Exam but they are required to take all regular testing and received accommodations and sometimes, if necessary, modifications. I am all for higher expectations but no matter what anyone or the law says, students with disabilties tend to be “left behind” due to the expectation of people who are not in the classroom or do not work in the educational setting on a daily basis. These people sit in a room and make decisions and change expectations without knowing the reality of servicing students with disabilities. We are constantly bombarded with “all means all” here but sometimes there are exceptions and if we don’t do something, at least half of our students with disabilities will drop out before graduating. They have a right to a State Diploma for all of their hard work just like the most Talented and Gifted Student. But our legal system seems to only focus on trying to make everyone Talented and Gifted. There is a reason why we have A, C’s, and F’s: Above Average, Average, Below Average. Not everyone can complete the “above average” curriculum even with accommodations and modifications and it is well above 2% that prove to be frustruated and unsuccessful and even drop out. What good is that doing? ….

  17. Peter says:

    Not all students should be required to take the standardized assessments because they are inappropriate for some students to take. The purpose of education is to create a better outcome post academically. What purpose do standardized tests do for students that are severely disabled, non-verbal, cognitively impaired and on non-academic tracks? As a teacher, I’ve had experiences when the student is constantly trying to jump up, or begins to hit himself to avoid the tests. The students are in the class because they have demonstrated that they can’t function in a general educational setting, but the government is mandating standardized testing that requires all students to sit and focus….not all students are capable of this.

    Differentiation should exist for students that are not going to college. Unique assessments to the needs of the individual and align with the person’s zone of approximate development are more appropriate.

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