Alternate Assessments for Students with Learning Disabilities

Introduction

Alternate assessment methods are actively proposed for evaluating the progress of different student populations, including students with disabilities. The reason is that traditional methods of assessment are not effective enough to illustrate actual results and performance (Lazarus & Rieke, 2013). The purpose of this paper is to discuss the topic of alternative assessment methods for students with learning disabilities in relation to Marion County School District, analyze associated political, legal, and current issues, identify students’ needs, and propose applications for the selected school district.

Introduction to Topic and School District Details

The topic to be discussed in this project is alternate assessment methods for such a specific student population as students with learning disabilities. The rationale for selecting this topic is that many school districts experience difficulties with proposing adequate formative and summative assessments for those students who require special attention (Cho & Kingston, 2013; Tindal, Nese, Farley, Saven, & Elliott, 2016). Marion County School District in South Carolina is a district where the number of students with specific needs is high (Marion County School District, 2017). Almost each school district serves diverse students with various needs. In order to guarantee the achievement of K-12 study goals, teachers should not only pay attention to planning lessons and proposing modifications to address these students’ needs, but they also should adapt assessment tools in order to see a real picture regarding students’ progress (Lazarus & Rieke, 2013).

In Marion County School District, the strategic plan for 2017-2018 is oriented to improving the reading and writing skills of diverse students, including students with specific learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, nonverbal learning disabilities, and dysgraphia among others. The K-12 assessment goal formulated by the authorities of Marion County School District for the 2017-2018 school year is to guarantee that, by June 2018, about 80% of students, including those ones with learning disabilities, will demonstrate improved reading skills successfully assessed with the help of Fountas and Pinnell assessments, Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA), SC Ready assessments, and MAP assessments (Marion County School District, 2017).

Recent Fountas and Pinnell data for the district indicate 47.7 % and 39.7 % for the first and the second-grade levels respectively but only 18.4 % for the fifth-grade level. Furthermore, another K-12 assessment goal for Marion County School District includes the use of such alternate assessment tools as Dominie Assessment and Star Reading. From this point, it is important to discuss the topic of alternate assessments for students with disabilities in the context of the goals formulated for the 2017-2018 school year in Marion County School District (Marion County School District, 2017). The types of tests include primarily Fountas and Pinnell as a formative reading assessment along with NWEA MAP and tools indicated above.

Three Key Political, Legal, and / or Current Issues

Despite the fact that teachers actively use alternate assessment methods for working with students with disabilities in their practice, there are still some political, legal, and current issues associated with the topic. The first issue is political, and it is related to the adoption of the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, according to which all schools are obliged to report on students’ academic achievements, including those ones with disabilities and special needs. As a result, school authorities experience problems while choosing the most appropriate alternate assessments for their students with special needs to align them with the state achievement standards, as well as developed alternate standards (Cho & Kingston, 2013). These initiatives have resulted in adopting inappropriate assessment tools to address specific state standards.

The second issue to discuss is legal in its nature, and it is associated with the development of individual education plans under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Students with learning disabilities have the right to be educated regarding an individual plan that includes alternate assessments (Cho & Kingston, 2013; Kingston, Karvonen, Bechard, & Erickson, 2016). However, those educators who decide on proposing alternate or modified traditional assessments for students with disabilities can make a wrong conclusion, affecting the quality of education and eligibility of final results. As a result, in spite of having a right to be educated and assessed in accordance with their needs, students with disabilities have no opportunities to benefit from individual education programs because of inappropriately selected alternate assessments.

The third issue is associated with current problems experienced by educators in different school districts, including the Marion County School District. The problem is that, although there are many alternate assessment designs, teachers often experience problems while adapting them to individual education plans and students’ specific needs. Thus, in spite of having possibilities to use checklists, portfolios, computerized assessments, and performance assessments to measure achievements of students with disabilities, there are many problems with their adoption, modification, and scoring (Tindal et al., 2016).

Barriers to successful adoption include a lack of resources (financial resources and time), the need to provide extensive training to educators, and potential resistance to new assessment tools (such resistance can be expected in all the cases of implementing change). For instance, teachers in Marion County School District have problems with using combined assessments to evaluate the performance of students with disabilities. Thus, the alternative Dominie Reading assessment and the computerized Star Reading assessment are not discussed as effective to be used while working with students who have learning disabilities. The problem can be associated with the inappropriate integration of these tools into the practice (Marion County School District, 2017). In case the tools’ design does not fully comply with the existing procedures, the adoption will require additional efforts, including more extensive training, schedule changes, and increased investment.

Three Student Needs Including Special Learning

Those students who study in Marion County School District, including students with learning disabilities, have three specific needs that are the use of more appropriate alternate assessments to measure achievements in reading and writing for all grades, the improvement or adaptation of the Dominie Reading assessment, and the Star Reading assessment, and the use of more flexible assignments. Currently, the authorities of Marion County School District are focused on implementing traditional Fountas and Pinnell assessments, DRA, SC Ready assessments, and MAP assessments, but many students with specific needs have few opportunities to appropriately demonstrate their knowledge and skills with reference to these standardized assessments (Marion County School District, 2017).

The reason is that standardized tools may not be properly aligned with individual student needs (e.g., in terms of learning styles), and this is especially evident in the case of students with disabilities. Furthermore, the application of the Dominie Reading and Star Reading assessments to be used for students with learning disabilities can also be an ineffective decision because there are more appropriate alternate assessment tools that can be used for these students (Kingston et al., 2016). Still, if the application of these assessments is possible, it is necessary to modify them. Thus, another need is associated with the aspect of flexibility. Students with different specific needs study in Marion County School District, and alternate tools, as well as assessments, should be flexible to address diverse students’ needs.

Three Applications to K-12 District Assessment

While focusing on the application of the topic regarding alternate assessments to the K-12 assessment procedures followed in Marion County School District, it is important to refer to students with learning disabilities as a target population. Firstly, the authorities of Marion County School District should be provided with the information regarding effective alternate assessment methods that can be used for working with students with disabilities and that address the education standards of South Carolina (Lazarus & Rieke, 2013). Secondly, the school district authorities should be informed regarding the approaches to adapting the Dominie Reading and Star Reading assessments to the evaluation of students’ performance because these combined tools were previously used in Marion County School District, and their application requires minor modifications. At present, Dominie Reading Assessment is not coordinated with the state standardized tests (mostly in terms of format and not measured skills), and there is a need for a more rigorous reading assessment that demands not only reading skills but also critical thinking.

Finally, it is important to support the integration of more alternate assessments in the curriculum developed for diverse groups of students. Different assessment tools and practices can be used in addition to traditional methods and possible adjustments. It is important to focus on the integration of assessment checklists, observations, performance assessments, portfolios, computerized assessments, and self-assessments (Tindal et al., 2016). The currently used reading and writing assessments adopted in Marion County School District are numerous and rather appropriate, but more effective tools can be applied to the teaching practice in this district to ensure the improvement in students’ performance. To achieve it, it is necessary to establish a committee that will select available tools that can be implemented in the given context, develop an implementation plan, monitor the adoption process, and collect feedback on the outcomes of using new assessment tools.

Relevance in Terms of Meeting the K-12 Assessment Goals

It is important that the assessment topic was relevant to the K-12 assessment goals of the school district. Since the rationale for the topic choice was the lack of adequate formative and summative assessments applicable to students with learning disabilities, the assessment goals should be relevant to the provided rationale and should support it. The strategic reading plan of the Marion County School District includes three major goals.

The first goal is related to the students’ growth. Thus, the students are expected to demonstrate one or more grade level’s progress according to measurements (Marion County School District, 2017). Currently, students are behind target performance, which is reflected in the district’s proficiency projections data. To assess this goal, teachers and administrators will collect, measure, and analyze the measured data concerning students’ reading skills. This goal demands careful preparation of specialists, both teachers, and administrators, to enable them to provide instructions suitable for students with learning disabilities, and plan their work to meet the particular needs of those students. The assessment results will become a basis for developing new or altering existing assessment strategies that consider the specific needs of the students.

The second goal is related to lesson planning and implementation. It supports the rationale in the respect that it includes the creation and implementation of the Instructional Framework. Such a framework outlines the expectations of reading and writing instructions that are supposed to include the needs of students with learning disabilities. A clearly set framework is likely to improve the achievements of students in both reading and writing (Marion County School District, 2017).

Finally, the third goal of Marion County School District strategic plan (2017) includes the development of partnerships with parents, different organizations, community representatives, and local business partners to promote reading and writing instructions inside and outside of the classroom” (p. 14). This goal also supports the rationale for the topic because students with learning disabilities frequently need more attention and more practice in and outside the classroom to improve their skills. Consequently, such partnerships are going to provide access to diverse reading resources and stimulate students to read more even after classes (Marion County School District, 2017).

Three Key Reasons for Topic Selection

The issue of assessment of students with learning disabilities has recently become a primary concern of many investigations. One of the major reasons that determined the choice of the topic for this research is the fact that many school districts face problems with proposing adequate formative and summative assessments for students with learning disabilities. It is evident that despite the policy of inclusion, these students require special attention. I chose the Marion County School District in South Carolina for the analysis because it is a district where the number of students with specific needs is high (Marion County School District, 2017).

The second reason for studying the issue of alternate assessments for students with learning disabilities is the fact that contemporary learning plans and assessment tools are aimed at an average student. Moreover, as long as students with special needs are involved, it is important not to evaluate their correspondence to the accepted standards, but individual progress. Thus, alternate assessments are the way-out for evaluation of the achievements of such students.

Finally, since the problem of assessment for students with learning disabilities is discussed, it is crucial to define the tasks for teachers working with them. Thus, it is necessary to provide training for teachers to enable them to instruct, teach, and evaluate students with special needs. All students need to be aware of learning targets and criteria, and it is the task of a teacher to adapt them to meet the needs of students with learning disabilities (Council of Chief State School Officers, 2017). Moreover, the use of alternate assessments demands some particular skills from the teachers.

On the whole, the topic can contribute to alternative assessment research. This study analyses the special needs typical of students with learning disabilities. Moreover, it reviews the possible applications to K-12 district assessment. After all, the topic of the study is relevant to K- 12 assessment goals.

Three Strategies to Utilize Technology

The technology of alternate assessment demands some strategies to be utilized. These strategies can contribute to the successful implementation of technology. On the whole, the assessment of students with disabilities is a challenge for a teacher (Watson, 2017). It is evident that the majority of such children cannot be evaluated with the use of common technologies. Still, the assessments are significant since it allows a student to demonstrate the obtained skills and see the progress as well as plan further actions.

The first strategy that is important for work with students with learning disabilities includes alterations in lesson planning. To guarantee the achievement of K-12 study goals, teachers should pay more attention to planning lessons and proposing modifications to address these students’ needs. Specific technology tools may include quiz games, classroom applications, integrative presentations, an audiovisual aid. Moreover, it is important to adapt assessment tools to provide a vision of a real picture of students’ progress.

Another strategy includes the improvement of teachers’ skills and knowledge. Not all educators were taught to work with students who have special needs. At the same time, Swanson, Harris, and Graham (2014) state that comprehension strategies provided by well-trained teachers have the potential to increase student skills. Moreover, a skilled teacher can provide proper instructions that are important for the comprehension of students. For example, Berninger, Nagy, Tanimoto, Thompson, and Abbott (2015) suggest computer instruction for students with specific learning disabilities that have a proven efficiency but can be appropriately applied only by welltrained teachers.

Finally, it is advisable to apply self-regulation strategies that include self-monitoring, self-evaluation, self-instruction, goal setting, etc. (Reid, Lienemann, & Hagaman, 2013). They allow students to understand what they do, individually plan the learning process, evaluate their successes, and assess achievements. Of course, teacher’s instructions are significant, but some independence is critical for students with learning disabilities. An example of a classroom application that can be used for these purposes is Socrative (Davis, 2017), which allows teachers and students to engage in formative assessment in an efficient way. The opportunity to assess their own performance is valuable and can lead to better academic achievements.

Conclusion

The paper has provided a discussion of such topics as the application of alternative assessment methods for working with different groups of students, including students with learning disabilities. Marion County School District is the specific school district selected for this project. In spite of the fact that the authorities of this school district pay much attention to applying effective reading and writing assessment tools for diverse students from all grades, the use of alternate assessments still requires improvement. The reason is that current political, legal and administrative issues can influence the process of applying alternate assessments for all students, including ones who study according to their individual plans. This problem still remains unresolved in relation to Marion County School District, and more attention should be paid to applying appropriate alternate assessment methods for measuring the achievements of students with specific learning needs.

References

Berninger, V., Nagy, W., Tanimoto, S., Thompson, R., & Abbott, R. (2015). Computer instruction in handwriting, spelling, and composing for students with specific learning disabilities in grades 4–9. Computers & Education, 81, 154-168. Web.

Cho, H. J., & Kingston, N. (2013). Why IEP teams assign low performers with mild disabilities to the alternate assessment based on alternate achievement standards. The Journal of Special Education, 47(3), 162-174.

Council of Chief State School Officers. (2017). Formative assessment for students with disabilities. Web.

Davis, V. (2017). Fantastic, fast formative assessment tools. Web.

Kingston, N., Karvonen, M., Bechard, S., & Erickson, K. A. (2016). The philosophical underpinnings and key features of the dynamic learning maps alternate assessment. Teachers College Record, 118(14), 14-19.

Lazarus, S. S., & Rieke, R. (2013). Leading the transition from the alternate assessment based on modified achievement standards to the general assessment. Journal of Special Education Leadership, 26(1), 25-30.

Marion County School District. (2017). Strategic plans: MCSD 2017-2018 reading plan. Web.

Reid, R., Lienemann, T.O., & Hagaman, J.L. (2013). Strategy instruction for students with learning disabilities (2nd ed.). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.