Why Assessments Matter for ALL Students

Federal and state education policies hold educators responsible for the high quality education of all students in public schools, including student subgroups that have been historically at risk for poor educational outcomes, such as students of color, students living in poverty, and students with disabilities.  Standardized assessments are the accountability measure for most students in a school; but for students with labels of significant cognitive disabilities, schools may use alternate assessments with alternative achievement standards.

Ideally, standardized assessments are part of an integrated system of instruction, assessment, and curriculum. They matter because they yield important data that educators can use to improve instruction and, in turn, the academic performance of all students. For students with significant disabilities, alternative assessments provide these data that lead to targeted interventions and supports.  While teaching and assessing students with labels of significant cognitive disabilities may be challenging, these students have repeatedly demonstrated that they can and do learn academic content when they are provided with high expectations, effective instruction, and meaningful, individualized support.

A good instruction-assessment system helps educators use assessment data to make changes to instruction and support, curriculum, and even the assessments themselves. One part of such a system is an “optimal testing conditions policy,” which outlines procedures for ensuring that the testing experience is managed well in order to get the most valid information from students. Students with disabilities are not the only students who may experience challenges during testing time, thus this policy may include instructions about how to handle student illness, hospitalization, homebound instruction, test anxiety, and so on.  Another goal of such a policy is to support students who have medical clearance to attend school so they do not experience difficulty accessing and participating in standardized or alternative assessments.

Policies and procedures for addressing the needs of students who do not demonstrate the communication, writing, or reading skills necessary to provide responses are also important elements of a good instruction-assessment system.  Students who do not use oral speech to communicate present assessment and instructional challenges; however, 25 years of data suggest that high quality communication intervention can improve communication functioning and symbolic language. (1)  When an alternative assessment helps a teaching team look for communicative responses, they have information from which to determine the next logical step in developing communication for a student, such as a request for communication intervention or professional development for a teaching team.

Many states have developed their own resources designed to further improve the academic performance of students with disabilities. The two alternate assessment consortia—Dynamic Learning Maps and the National Center and State Collaborative—have developed a wide array of instructional resources to assist all educators in ensuring that students with disabilities continue their progress toward higher academic achievement. Both the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the National Association of Elementary School Principals have extensive lists focused on these resources available to teachers at http://www.ccsso.org/Resources.html and http://www.naesp.org/common-core-state-standards-resources, respectively.

The “least dangerous assumption” is to teach ALL students, teach them well, with the expectation that learning is occurring. (2)  Even if we are not sure what students are in fact learning, when we teach and assess, and then develop interventions, implement services, and provide the supports based on assessment results, at a minimum, all students including those with labels of significant cognitive disabilities will have a chance to thrive in their current educational and future career and college environments. They deserve no less.


1  Snell, M.E., Brady, N., McLean, L., Ogletree, B.T., Siegel, E., Sylvester, L., Mineo, B., Romski, M.A., & Sevcik, R. (2010). Twenty years of communication intervention research with individuals who have severe intellectual and developmental disabilities. American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 115 (5), 364–380.

2  Donnellan, A. M. (1984). The criterion of the least dangerous assumption. Behavioral Disorders, 9, 41-50.

– Barb Trader

Photo of blog author.TASH Executive Director