Statewide Assessments 101
Standardized testing can induce anxiety even for students who excel at academics. For students who may require more support in school, it can be even more stressful, and parents may have questions about the purpose such tests serve, as well as their child’s rights when it comes to statewide standardized assessments.
Every public school has statewide testing throughout most of elementary and middle school, and once again in high school. In this article, we explore the most important questions parents of students with IEPs or 504s have about the testing: which statewide assessments students will take, what accommodations are allowed for students with disabilities, alternate testing, why they need to record decisions about testing and testing accommodations from the IEP team in the IEP, and whether families can opt out. We also explain how statewide testing plays a big role in holding schools accountable for educating all students, especially students with disabilities.
To get insights about these assessments, we talked to Dr. Bree Jimenez, associate professor of special education at the University of Texas at Arlington, and Ricki Sabia, J.D., senior education policy advisor at the National Down Syndrome Congress.
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), federal legislation passed in 2015, requires that all public schools in the country administer statewide assessments. There are typically two options for students: (1) the regular statewide assessments and (2) the alternate state assessments. Each state has its own testing system to meet that requirement. Nationally, two associations manage testing in different states: Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and Smarter Balanced Assessment System (SBAC).
In California, the majority of students take the California Assessment of School Performance and Progress (CAASPP), of which students with the most significant cognitive disabilities take the California Alternate Assessment (CAA).
SBAC is used for all CAASPP tests in California:
- Smarter Balanced Summative Assessments for English Language Arts (ELA) and Math
- California Alternate Assessment (CAA) for ELA and Math
- California Science Test (CAST)
- California Alternate Assessment for Science
- Language Proficiency Assessments for California (ELPAC)
Students take the online test each spring, starting in third grade, through to eighth grade. They take it once more in eleventh grade. As students answer questions correctly, the test asks progressively harder questions, so it can identify the student's skills across a wide range of levels. On the CAASPP, test scores are reported to parents and are standardized, so a student’s scores are compared to scores of other students their age, giving each student a percentile score. Because the testing is standardized, parents can track their child’s progress year after year.
What should my child’s IEP say about statewide testing?
The IEP team must decide on an individual basis “how” a student will participate in testing — which test versions and what universal tools, designed supports, and accommodations are necessary. The team has two important considerations:
Qualifying for the CAAs
First, they must consider whether a student qualifies as one of the small number of students with the most significant cognitive disabilities who qualify for the CAAs for ELA, Math, and Science. The majority of kids with IEPs will take the general assessments, often with accommodations, but generally speaking, if a student with significant cognitive disability meets eligibility requirements to take alternate state assessments, districts are likely to recommend they do so. IEP teams can use the CDE’s recommended Alternate Assessment Decision Confirmation Worksheet to determine whether a student is eligible to participate in the CAAs or Alternate ELPAC. As part of the IEP team, it is very important that parents understand the possible implications of agreeing to alternate assessment, which we’ll discuss below.
Second, the IEP or 504 plan for any child with a disability must list adequate testing accommodations specifically for statewide assessments.
For all CAASPP assessments, accommodations listed elsewhere in the IEP document may apply to classroom assessments only and may not always be available for statewide testing. For this reason, it is important to know what kinds of supports are permissible and under what circumstances. For example, a simple calculator might be allowed in a math test in sixth grade but not in third grade. Text-to-speech or read aloud can be used in math but not in ELA reading passages where the purpose is to test the child’s reading skills.
Statewide tests do have certain accommodations available — universal tools (available to all students), designated supports (available to students for whom a need has been indicated), and accommodations (only available to those students who have the need documented in their IEP or 504 plan) — which can be embedded (part of the test delivery system for the computer-based CAASPP tests) or non-embedded (not part of the test delivery system but would be provided for the student by the school district).
Here are the tools, designated supports, and accommodations that are included for the Smarter Balanced Assessment System (CAASPP). As parents, it’s important to be familiar with your child’s test taking accommodations, and make sure that the testing accommodations agreed to are being implemented. Check out our article for more detailed information on these SBAC accommodations.
Note: According to the CDE, If your child is taking the CAASPP and their IEP or 504 plan requires the use of a resource not listed as one of the universal tools, designated supports, or accommodations, your school district may submit a request to the CDE to allow the use of an “unlisted resource.” Unlisted resources are made available only with approval from the California Department of Education (CDE). This request must be made annually by the school district and at least ten days before CAASPP testing begins.
While all CAASPP assessments offer a selection of aids and accommodations, alternate assessments like the CAA do allow for a wider range of supports during testing, including a variety of media for engagement and demonstration of student knowledge. Dr. Jimenez explains that alternate assessments can be a lot more flexible, are based on every student’s needs, and are designed to find ways for students to be successful.
If the accommodations enable the child to demonstrate what they have learned, the results of the state assessment may show a more accurate picture of the child’s knowledge. For example, a child may know the answer to a question but not be able to navigate with a mouse through the test or select the correct response. In such situations, the child might be allowed a scribe — an adult who is familiar with the child and who can select or type an answer that the child provides using alternative means, such as an AAC device or gesturing.
Note that unlike accommodations, modifications are not available in statewide testing as the purpose of the test is to find out whether the child has learned the skills outlined in the core state standards.
Can I opt my child out of testing?
As mentioned earlier, state assessments and standardized testing in general can create a lot of anxiety for both students and parents. Just the idea that testing holds schools accountable can put a lot of pressure on parents’ and kids’ shoulders. You might wonder what the point is in putting your child through the test. We’ll discuss that more below, but the short answer is that state testing creates a layer of accountability for schools and educators. However, it’s important to note that students are not required to take the statewide assessments, so if you feel that the benefits of state testing are not worth the stress they put on your child, you can opt your child out.
Every state is different, but in California, any parent can opt their child out of state testing by writing a letter (each year) to the school (check with your school district for specifics) and simply stating that they would like to opt their child out of state testing (name the test) for that academic school year. You can also ask that the school make arrangements for a productive educational experience for their child during the testing period. This request must be in writing and it’s important to retain a copy of the request in your records. Schools must grant this request, but will not present this as an option to you because they are only permitted to have a certain percentage of students opt out. This process takes place outside of the IEP, so even if you opt out, you will still need to have a testing section on the IEP as though your child were planning to take it. You can read our sample letter here.
ESSA recognizes a parent’s right to opt out of state testing, and in California, there are no consequences to students nor any state sanctions imposed on schools in which parents have opted out. However, opting out effectively releases your child’s teacher from accountability for your child’s academic progress. Students who opt out may be given alternative assignments or study time. Additionally, in some other states, the school may ask that you keep your child at home on testing days.
What to know about the alternate assessment
Alternate assessments were created to enable students with significant cognitive disabilities to be tested, like their peers, on their academic knowledge and skills, using performance levels appropriate for them. The results of the assessments are then used to show how well schools are meeting the students’ educational needs.
If a school team recommends that the student takes the alternate assessment, parents must be a part of that conversation. If possible, it’s a good idea to become familiar with the criteria before an IEP meeting so you have the information you need to decide whether or not your child should take an alternate assessment. (See guidance on California’s alternate assessment criteria here).
The IEP must include a statement of why the child cannot participate in the regular assessment and why the alternate assessment is appropriate for the child. To be eligible for alternate assessment, the student needs to have a “significant cognitive disability,” be learning content linked to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), and require “extensive, direct individualized methods of accessing information in alternate ways.”
The alternate assessment is designed and field-tested for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities and is not appropriate for all students with disabilities. Note that this is a very small group of students — ESSA limits the number of students who take alternate assessments to no more than 1% of all students (although many states either have a waiver to exceed the cap or are just out of compliance). The U.S. Department of Education estimates this to be approximately 10% of all students with disabilities.
Why shouldn't all students with disabilities take the CAA?
While taking an alternate assessment doesn’t change the grade-level standards expected of the student, the standards are modified to California’s alternative achievement standards, which were developed specifically for students with significant cognitive disabilities who are using alternate assessments to be able to access the same California state standards as their peers without disabilities.
As Sabia explains, “The alternate assessments cover less breadth, depth, and complexity of the grade-level state content standards than the regular assessment. Therefore, they are not as good a measure of how students are faring on the full state content standards for students with disabilities who should be able to master the full content with accommodations because they don't meet the criteria for having the most significant cognitive disabilities.”
Historically students taking the CAA have done poorly. It's not easy to know if the teaching is at fault or the test itself. Dr. Jimenez points out that since the CAA is based on the California Alternate Assessment Standards, it will depend largely on how well the alternate achievement standards are aligned with the core content standards in each state, as well as how well the students have been able to access the general education curriculum with modifications provided for their unique needs.
While this isn't a parent’s responsibility to solve, parents can bring questions to the IEP team about what is being taught in the curriculum and being used in the classroom, and how it aligns with the state standards and assessments.
The benefit to taking the alternate assessment rather than opting out completely is that the alternate assessment can provide a lot of information, especially if completed year after year between third and eighth grade. The test allows your child's teacher to see what your child can do and how they can demonstrate knowledge. It also allows your child’s teacher to monitor your child's progress over time on a much wider set of skills than can be included in your child’s IEP goals.
When thinking about alternate assessments (and opting out altogether), Dr. Jimenez gives us some tips on approaching them as a method of gathering meaningful information:
Why alternate assessments aren’t gatekeepers
As mentioned earlier, the IEP team, of which parents are an integral part, decides whether to have a student participate in alternate state testing. Like the decision to opt out, this decision should be reviewed annually. Normally, this discussion first takes place during the second grade annual IEP, before state testing in third grade. ESSA is very specific that taking an alternate assessment should not be linked either to a student’s ability to qualify for a diploma or to their classroom placement. According to IDEA 300.160, a state should “not preclude a student with the most significant cognitive disabilities who takes an alternate assessment aligned with alternate academic achievement standards from attempting to complete the requirements for a regular high school diploma.”
Dr. Jimenez tells us that alternate assessments are not gatekeepers and aren’t designed to prohibit your child from moving from one grade to another. However, in practice, many schools do make this association, so do ask questions about the implications of your choice for your child’s assessment. She further explains that the intent of alternate assessment standards is not to create an alternate curriculum or place children with significant cognitive disabilities in a different classroom. Rather, alternate assessment standards aim to support students’ access to the general education curriculum through modification (modified curriculum gives a child with significant support needs access to the same academic standards as their peers but at their developmental level).
Taking alternate assessments also doesn’t mean a student cannot still work toward a diploma (California has a new alternate pathway to a high school diploma for students with significant cognitive disabilities who take the CAA. Check out our article on that here!).
A student can move from one track to another at any point. For example, if a student has been placed on the certificate track, their IEP team can work out a plan for them to earn a regular diploma if possible, or by an alternate pathway. If a student is placed on alternate assessment but a family feels it’s not appropriate, the family can request that the student take the traditional statewide assessment instead. Similarly, if a student is set to take the statewide assessment but is struggling significantly to meet grade-level expectations (far below grade level), then the family may discuss whether utilizing more modifications in their curriculum and switching to alternate assessment is more appropriate, bearing in mind that extensive modification may affect the student’s pathway to a diploma. Remember, any decisions and changes must be documented in the IEP.
Making the final decision: Why is statewide testing important?
A game changer for students with disabilities
According to Sabia, the introduction of state testing has been a game changer for students with disabilities. NCLD states that before federal testing laws were in place, “some student subgroups — especially students with disabilities — were excluded from grade-level curriculum and, in some instances, their academic performance was hidden from families and decision makers.” Sabia recognises that the requirement in ESSA to publicly report the data from state assessment for each subgroup, including all students with disabilities, has had a great effect of schools taking seriously their academic responsibilities to students with disabilities.
“My son started school before NCLB and this accountability. I saw a marked difference after 2002 in the attention paid to his academics. I still believe students with disabilities should take the state assessments because the states determine which schools are in need of targeted support and intervention based on how the various subgroups (including students with disabilities) are doing. Those schools get some extra funding and support.”
Holding schools accountable
Further, federal laws hold state school systems accountable for testing and require that 95% of students with disabilities will participate in the assessments. Sabia tells us that in their consolidated ESSA plans, states indicate how they will factor assessment participation in school accountability designations." This accountability is important because it prevents schools from attempting to get better scores by persuading the parents of children who may not score well to opt out.
Under ESSA, schools can get funds for targeted support and improvement if the school is underperforming for sub-groups. If parents of students with disabilities opt their kids out, then the students with disabilities subgroup may still be underperforming but the school won’t get targeted support and improvement funds due to skewed data (assuming more poorly performing students are opting out).
Put simply, statewide testing can be a tool for equity — it helps parents and educators monitor the academic progress of students with disabilities, drives resources to schools in greatest need, and the layer of accountability it offers helps prevent schools from discounting the education of students with disabilities.
Key takeaways for families
Start the conversation early
When it comes to making decisions about assessments, it’s important to start discussions early, ask questions, and consider the student’s unique strengths and areas of need. As we mentioned above, these discussions first take place during the second grade annual IEP, before state testing in third grade. This is also a good space to discuss any concerns you may have about assessments. Alternate assessments, for example, are often equated with students being placed in a different setting from that of his or her same-age peers without disabilities, but Dr. Jimenez tells us that these are misinterpretations.
She tells us that “good discussions should be had early about assessments, and not the default idea of ‘we look at a disability category and the default idea of where somebody is taught’ or ‘a default idea of what curriculum or what assessment they're on.’ So being careful that those decisions aren't made too early, the decisions are made for the right reasons, and really from the full spirit of ‘we've tried with due diligence and good research and evidence based practices.’”
Explore options & know your rights
Whether you’re considering opting out of testing, having a conversation about CAA with your IEP team, or exploring all the accommodations that are available with state assessments, exploring early and knowing your rights as a parent can help you navigate your options. One of your rights in CA is opting out of state testing with no state-mandated consequences for students.
Overall, being proactive is a great way to actively advocate for your child. That includes knowing the system, knowing your rights, knowing all about the accommodations your child is eligible for, and insisting that they’re implemented. When weighing your options and thinking about assessments (or opting out altogether), Dr. Jimenez asks parents to consider the question: “What could the assessment provide for me and the IEP team that we could bring back to the table and start to talk about more?”
Build your child’s educational story
While statewide testing is built to progress school accountability, and assessment victories have helped improve how schools serve students with disabilities, ultimately, it’s your family’s decision, based on your priorities, whether or not your child participates. Whatever the right choice is for your family, having meaningful tools and data is an important piece in building and understanding your child’s educational story; and if you choose to participate in statewide assessments, they can be one more meaningful tool in building your child’s educational story.