The tortuous road to more inclusive and innovative assessments

The tortuous road to more inclusive and innovative assessments

By Dale Chu

Last month, the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) released an important and insightful report titled, “Inclusive, Innovative Assessments for Students With Learning Disabilities.” It reflects findings gathered from surveys and focus groups NCLD conducted in 2022—with educators of students with disabilities, caregivers, and young adults with disabilities—to better understand their perceptions toward annual assessments. Notably, caregivers had a more positive perspective on state testing: 78% of caregivers said state exams should be given annually—as required by federal law—as compared to only 48% of educators.

This disconnect between educators and caregivers should come as no surprise: Over 70% of the general public supports annual testing—no doubt, in part, because of a strong desire among parents and families for an objective judgment of student performance. At the same time, educators and caregivers were aligned on other testing-related matters, such as appropriate supports and accommodations to ensure students with disabilities can fully access the tested material. In addition, stakeholders agreed on the need to better communicate the purpose of state testing as well as the proper role of summative exams as one of multiple measures used to gauge academic performance.

Along with the key findings, NCLD’s analysis outlines five core principles for new assessments that are worth contemplating: (1) Assess students’ proficiency to grade-level standards; (2) Facilitate the comparison of individual students to grade-level standards and to peers; (3) Be accessible and culturally and linguistically responsive; (4) Be primarily used as one component of an accountability system and balanced assessment system that includes all students; and (5) Minimize instructional disruption among students and educators. I could quibble, but it’s worth noting with number two that comparability is a huge sticking point that, for better or worse, is holding back forward progress on the development of new assessment systems. Indeed, the authors say as much in their passage on IADA earlier in the report.

By my lights, the juicy part begins on page nineteen with the “New Approaches to Assessment” section. Here, the report calls out four of today’s buzziest measurement approaches—through-year testing, performance-based testing, matrix sampling, and computer adaptive testing—and offers questions and concerns for each as it relates to NCLD’s principles. Pay attention in particular to the “areas of concerns and future investigation” flagged under each approach. For example, when it comes to through-year testing, accessibility features such as braille or speech-to-text are not yet available (to say nothing of the broader issues with through-course testing). As another example, many computer-adaptive tests don’t allow students to skip questions, which could adversely impact students with learning disabilities or attention issues.

Timely and helpful, NCLD’s new report surfaces legitimate reliability, validity, and cost questions for policymakers and test developers as they aim to build and improve upon today’s assessment systems. The upshot is that the pursuit of more innovative tests must continue, but it should be done so with full knowledge of the potential challenges ahead.

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