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IV. Assessment

Utilizing assessment to promote equity in public education.





  1. Early Learning
  2. Evidence-Based School and Classroom Practices
  3. Educator Preparation and Professional Learning
  4. Assessment (current page)
  5. Accountability
  6. Family and Student Engagement
  7. Special Education Financing





Public education in the United States is philosophically grounded in principles of equity. Every child has value, and every child matters. Excluding any group of children from a system of assessment, or using tests that are not accurate or effective in registering what those children know and are able to do, tacitly implies that those children are “less than”; they do not matter as much as those who are counted and rigorously assessed. Yet we know that the success of any society is best determined by how it treats its most disadvantaged.


In announcing the Office of Special Education Program’s (OSEP) shift to “Results Driven Accountability” (see following section), U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, “Every child, regardless of income, race, background or disability, can succeed if provided the opportunity to learn. . . . We know that when students with disabilities are held to high expectations and have access to the general curriculum in their classrooms, they excel. We must be honest about student performance, so that we can give all students the supports and services they need to succeed.”52

Effective assessments are a vital part of any effort to educate. They provide a clear benchmark against which to measure student progress and accomplishment, and they can provide a clear picture of what services, supports, and instructional approaches are working—and which are not.

All students with disabilities deserve to be assessed. In fact, “The vast majority [of students with disabilities]—about 80–85% based on the latest distribution of disability categories—are students without cognitive impairments. Rather, they are students who with specially designed instruction, appropriate access, supports, and accommodations, as required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), can meet the same achievement standards as other students. We must ensure that these students progress through school successfully to be ready for college or career. In addition, we have learned that students with cognitive impairments can do more than we previously believed possible. In many cases, students have surprised their teachers and parents—and themselves—by mastering content that, before standards-based reform, was never taught to them.”53


Standards-Based Individualized Education Programs

The education of a student with a disability is guided by an Individualized Education Program (IEP), which establishes the student’s school goals and the means by which the student will receive special supports to reach those goals, all guided by the student’s abilities and disability. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) establishes a new level of academic rigor for these goals.

Many parents and teachers are concerned that the standards may be too rigorous and students may flounder under the increased demands. Yet the new standards also provide a potent opportunity for educators to change the way they approach assessments—how they develop “present levels of performance,” set goals, and monitor progress—and improve the climate for the IEP to better serve the teachers involved and the student so that this specialized program realizes its original purpose.

However, standards and assessments don’t exist in a vacuum. Standards, curriculum, instruction, and assessment must reflect a coherent whole, with each part echoing, supporting, and informing the other. As the standards identify what children need to know and be able to do from grade to grade (the goals), curriculum and instruction identify how the learning takes place and progresses from one lesson to another, from one grade to the next (a kind of road map, with the activities that advance the students toward the goal); then assessments provide a compass for knowing how close students are to those goals. IEPs can serve as an integral part of this picture—as long as they accurately reflect all parts: standards, curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

As the expectations and increased demands of the new standards require a focus on comprehensive knowledge, skills, and abilities that include preparation for college, career, independent living, and financial self-sufficiency, the IEP can specify and align standards with goals, services, and supports to ensure student success. To date, a clear and certain mandate that IEP goals are aligned with standards, along with a robust commitment to training teachers statewide to fulfill this mandate, does not exist in California.

When schools and school districts consciously involve parents in all aspects of the educational discussion, parents become equal partners in supporting the school success of their children. Knowledge about the rationale behind change—currently in California, the increased rigor in schools as a result of the new standards and the corollary changes in the goals and progress expectations for their children—can only serve to strengthen the system. Only by involving parents early and often will an evolution to rigorous, yet appropriate, standards-aligned IEPs be successful.

New Standards, New Tests

To date, California has yet to realize a clear, seamless alignment among standards, curriculum, and assessments for all students. The implementation of the CCSS is giving the state an opportunity to create this unprecedented alignment and to ensure that every student is tested in a way that reflects what he or she has learned.

In spring 2015, California students will have an opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge, skills, and abilities related to the CCSS by taking the aligned Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) tests. These new assessments focus on evaluating in-depth knowledge, critical-thinking skills, and capacity for real-world problem solving. Most students with disabilities who historically participated in the statewide assessment system through the California Modified Assessment (CMA) will now be able to participate—with appropriate universal tools, designated supports and accommodations—in the SBAC assessments.

However, for some students with the most significant cognitive disabilities, the SBAC will not be appropriate. Since 2003, these students have participated in the assessment system by taking the California Alternate Performance Assessment (CAPA), which was designed to assess student learning in California’s 1997 standards for English language arts, mathematics, and science. The California Department of Education (CDE) is in the process of developing for these students a new alternate assessment that is aligned with the CCSS, with plans to pilot that test in spring 2015 “to allow all eligible students and their teachers the opportunity to have exposure to a test aligned to the CCSS...”54

The state will not include the results of this pilot test in accountability measures, and for good reason: policy makers want students, teachers, and parents to learn about and become familiar with the new test “without the concern that assessment results will be reported or used...”55

The goal of creating this alternate assessment is to ensure that students with the most significant cognitive disabilities are fully included in the state’s educational system, providing them with the best possible way to demonstrate what they know and are able to do. Certainly if the new standards are worth adopting, then they are worth teaching to all students; appropriate core content “connectors”56 can make this possible for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities.

New studies continue to emerge about the learning potential of students with cognitive disabilities. Findings about the “neuroplasticity” of the brain, as well as research into changes in intelligence over time, make it clear that human learning is unpredictable and its potential unfathomable.57 In fact, “we no longer need to accept that learning disabilities, developmental delays or disorders, or even low cognitive ability, cannot be changed or at least improved to some degree.”58 As well, new programs that admit students with cognitive disabilities to colleges and universities are showing “steep gains” for these students in life satisfaction, employment options, and earning potential.59 Ensuring that all students are challenged, taught, and tested on the skills and knowledge they will need as adults will help them become as independent and productive as possible when they leave school.

New Testing Conditions

The Smarter Balanced assessments, which are computer based, feature new built-in “universal supports,” “designated supports,” and “accommodations” that any student could potentially make use of, with the latter two types of features designed especially for students receiving special education services. There is great promise in these features to offer remarkable improvements over paper-and-pencil tests. But these tests are new to nearly everyone: students, teachers, administrators, and parents. Given the importance of the built-in features in “leveling the playing field” for students with disabilities, there also exists an understandable concern about how students and teachers can learn to use them and what will happen if they don’t.


As California schools continue to expand their implementation of the CCSS, it is imperative that the IEP process evolves and adapts to the changing expectations for all students. The IEP should be as coherent as the system it reflects. IEP team discussions about student expectations, performance, and progress should be guided by the new standards; and ultimately all IEPs should become aligned with the new standards. Assessments, which reflect the success of the IEP, must be selected with great care, their effectiveness monitored, and their alignment with curriculum and instruction secured for all students.

In support of this vision, the state and local educational agencies (LEAs) need changes in policy and practice to ensure the following:

  • IEPs consist of goals that are aligned with the CCSS.
  • Parents are kept informed of changes in standards, the rationale for those changes, the implications for IEPs and courses of study, and strategies for supporting their children at home.
  • An assessment for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities is selected to replace the CAPA and is directly and rigorously aligned with the CCSS.
  • Teachers and schools are accountable for the progress that students with the most significant cognitive disabilities make in meeting the standards.
  • Samples of standards-aligned IEPs are created and disseminated, along with comprehensive training on adapting those examples or models for use in IEP meetings.
  • The Smarter Balanced assessments, especially the use of the “Designated Supports” and “Accommodations” for students receiving special education services, are carefully and thoroughly reviewed for effectiveness and accessibility.
  • A common data-gathering system is created to record and report on student IEP goals, monitor progress toward goals, and evaluate implementation of standards-based IEPs statewide.


  1. U.S. Department of Education. (June 24, 2014). New accountability framework raises the bar for state special education programs. External link opens in new window or tab.
  2. Thurlow, M. (April 28, 2010). Written testimony of Martha L. Thurlow, Ph.D. director, National Center on Educational Outcomes before the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP) United States Senate, pp. 2–3. External link opens in new window or tab. (PDF)
  3. Countdown to CAPA 2015. Update on the 2014–15 Alternate Assessment (letter from CDE to California Special Education Departments, 2014).
  4. Ibid.
  5. Core Content Connectors (CCCs). External link opens in new window or tab. Support aspects of a learning standard. These connectors break standards into manageable parts and create content targets that are linked to the CCSS and are typically used to plan instruction and assessment for students who will take an alternate assessment. The CCCs are less complex than the CCSS and focus on the main academic content in each subject and grade.
  6. In U.S. Senate hearings on No Child Left Behind, Rachel Quenemoen wrote: “We have a colleague at NCEO, Dr. Kevin McGrew, who is one of the authors of the Woodcock-Johnson III tests of achievement. He has tested the assumption that ‘any fool knows those kids [with significant cognitive disabilities] can’t learn’ by looking at the academic achievement of students of varying measured IQs, a common measurement used for eligibility for the special education category of mental retardation. He has found, ‘It is not possible to predict which children will be in the upper half of the achievement distribution based on any given level of general intelligence. For most children with cognitive disabilities (those with below average IQ scores), it is NOT possible to predict individual levels of expected achievement with the degree of accuracy that would be required to deny a child the right to high standards/expectations.’ “The bottom line is that 80% of students with disabilities, that is, 98% of all students, do not have cognitive disabilities (called mental retardation in official disability categories) as their primary disability. My 31-year-old daughter does have mental retardation, and she is a curious, engaged, life-long learner, so I struggle to understand how educators could systematically make assumptions about her ability to learn. I struggle to understand how educators could make those assumptions about the ability of all students with other disabilities as well, those who may have learning disabilities, speech language disabilities, vision, hearing, or any disabilities that may affect HOW a student learns, but like my daughter, need not dramatically affect WHAT the student learns. We have research and practice-tested methods to teach all children well, but in some schools the collective will to do so has not yet been mustered.” (July 12, 2006).
  7. Vancouver Learning Center. (n.d.). Neuroplasticity.
  8. Heasely, S. (January 20, 2015). Study finds postsecondary programs boost outcomes. External link opens in new window or tab. DisabilityScoop.
Questions:   Special Education Division | | 916-445-4613
Last Reviewed: Monday, May 08, 2023
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