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All Students Count: Testing for Students with Significant Cognitive Disabilities


This article was contributed by Vickie Dieter, ASNC Autism Resource Specialist.

All students count. It is a worthy sentiment, but it has not always been the case in terms of students with disabilities participating in state achievement tests. Upon signing the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), President George Bush made a statement that might explain poor educational outcomes and the exclusion of students with disabilities in state performance measures: “It is the soft bigotry of low expectations.” In his speech celebrating the signing of the act, President Bush said “the fundamental principle of this bill is that every child can learn, we expect every child to learn, and you must show us whether or not every child is learning.”

At the core of the No Child Left Behind Act were a number of measures designed to drive broad gains in student achievement and to hold states and schools more accountable for student progress. They represented significant changes to the education landscape (U.S. Department of Education, 2001).

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), amended by Congress in 2004, also included provisions that focus on improving the quality of education for all children, including children with disabilities. Both laws require that all children have access to the general curriculum and that every student count in school accountability measures so that high expectations for all students equals high achievement for every child. In North Carolina, access to the general curriculum means the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Math, and the NC Essential Standards for other areas of education. For students with the most significant disabilities, access can be provided through the NC Extended Content Standards for the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Math, and the NC Extended Essential Standards for the content areas.

Recently, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced a new accountability framework that further raises the bar for special education. Under this new framework known as Results-Driven Accountability (RDA), the Department of Education will also include educational results and outcomes for students with disabilities in making each state’s annual performance determination under IDEA.

“Every child, regardless of income, race, background, or disability can succeed if provided the opportunity to learn,” Duncan said. “We know that when students with disabilities are held to high expectations and have access to the general curriculum in the regular classroom, they excel. We must be honest about student performance, so that we can give all students the supports and services they need to succeed.”

Today, all students with disabilities must be included in statewide assessments, such as End of Grade (EOG) or End of Course (EOC) testing. The Individualized Education Program (IEP) team determines how a student with disabilities, including students with the most significant cognitive disabilities, will take the statewide assessment. The decision should be based on each student’s educational needs, and parents should have meaningful participation in the decision process.

NCLB and IDEA include provisions for eligible students with disabilities to participate in general statewide assessments with or without accommodations. A few common accommodations include testing in a small group, testing in a separate room, extended time to take the test, multiple testing sessions, or allowing the students to mark in the test booklet. Before the accommodations to be used during state testing are discussed, the student’s IEP team or 504 team should document the accommodations to be provided during regular classroom instruction and testing. Accommodations for statewide testing should be consistent with accommodations used routinely for classroom instruction and classroom tests so students will be familiar with the accommodations before taking state assessments.

Alternate Assessments: Extend 1

The law allows states to provide alternate assessments for the small number of students who are not able to participate in statewide assessments even with appropriate accommodations. An alternate assessment based on alternate achievement standards is designed for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities to measure achievement separately in reading and language arts, math, and science. In North Carolina, this achievement test is called Extend 1.

The IEP team should have an exhaustive discussion regarding the use of appropriate testing accommodations before determining the need for a student to participate in an alternate assessment. Each member of the IEP team, including parents, should have access to information about alternate assessments so procedures for testing can be determined and documented on the child’s IEP. The team must also carefully review potential long-term consequences for state and local graduation requirements. This is especially important because the type of curriculum and state assessments in which a student participates can influence his or her eligibility to graduate from high school with a diploma.

So, who should participate in alternate assessments? In this state, the NC Department of Public Instruction has established the following criteria that students with disabilities must meet to participate in Extend 1:

  • The student has a current IEP.
  • The student is enrolled in grades 3-8, 10, or 11 according to PowerSchool. Note: Only students enrolled in 11th grade for the first time are required to take the NCEXTEND1 Alternate Assessment at Grade 11.
  • The student is instructed in the NC Extended Common Core or Essential Standards in ALL assessed content areas.
  • The student has a significant cognitive disability (i.e., exhibits severe and pervasive delays in ALL areas of conceptual, linguistic and academic development and also in adaptive behavior areas, such as communication, daily living skills, and self-care).

The vast majority of students with disabilities do not have a significant cognitive disability. The NCEXTEND1 is NOT appropriate for the following students:

  • Students who are being instructed in ANY OR ALL of the general grade-/course-level content standards of the NC Common Core State Standards or Essential Standards.
  • Students who demonstrate delays only in academic achievement.
  • Students who demonstrate delays primarily because of behavioral issues.
  • Students who demonstrate delays only in selected areas of academic achievement.
  • Students pursuing a high school diploma, including students enrolled in the Occupational Course of Study. (NC Testing Program, NC Alternate Assessment System, NCEXTEND1 Alternate Assessment (English Language Arts/Reading and Math Grades 3–8, Science Grades 5 and 8, English II at Grade 10, Math I at Grade 10, Biology at Grade 10, and Grade 11); Eligibility Criteria; NCDPI Division of Accountability Services August 2013).

The IEP must contain a statement about why the student cannot participate in the regular assessment, and how the particular alternate assessment selected is appropriate for the child. The statement should include information specific to the child and how the disability affects his or her participation in state testing. Following is an example:

John has a diagnosis of moderate autism. He has a severe delay in language and communication and uses an augmentative communication device. A recent psychological re-evaluation indicated that John’s IQ is 54. His recent educational evaluation and classroom-based assessments indicate that John’s reading is at the pre-primer level and his math skills are on late-kindergarten level. He scored a 2 in reading and 3 in math on last year’s Extend 1 test.

John exhibits significant delays in adaptive behavior and self-care skills. He receives modifications and accommodations to help him access classroom curriculum and tests. He has participated in the Extensions of the Common Core curriculum for two years. The IEP team determined that the Extend 1 test is most appropriate for John because his academic and adaptive skills are significantly below grade level, and because Extend 1 provides opportunities for John to demonstrate his knowledge and skills in ways that are better suited to his abilities than those provided on regular EOG tests. The regular EOG test is not appropriate for John because he has not had complete access to the regular third-grade Common Core curriculum/content on which the test is based, and because of John’s significant cognitive delays, it is unlikely he would be able to comprehend and respond to grade-level questions and reading passages on the regular test, even with accommodations.

Use of Alternate Assessments Should be Limited

It is clear that the intent of federal law is that a very small percentage of students with the most significant disabilities should take alternate assessments based on alternate achievement standards. Remember that North Carolina guidelines define a student with a significant cognitive disability, and, therefore, potentially eligible to take the Extend 1 alternate assessment as exhibiting severe and pervasive delays in ALL areas of conceptual, linguistic, and academic development and also in adaptive behavior areas, such as communication, daily living skills and self-care. It is important for IEP teams to make sure children truly meet these criteria before removing them from the general education curriculum and/or using alternate assessments to measure their academic skills. I believe it is especially important for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders whose language, communication, or behavior may interfere with their ability to demonstrate their true abilities. As a parent, if you don’t understand how the school is determining your child has severe and pervasive delays in all areas, please ask them to explain it to you. If you disagree with the evaluation or assessment data the school is using to identify your child as having a significant cognitive disability, federal law includes procedural safeguards concerning your rights as a parent and methods to resolve disputes between parents and schools.

It is also important to remember that curricula and testing should never drive the placement of any student with a disability, including students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. The law still mandates that children be place in the least restrictive environment: “To the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities, including children in public or private institutions or other care facilities, are educated with children who do not have disabilities, and special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only when the nature or severity of the disability of a child is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.” CFR (300.114(a)

For more on alternate assessments, check these resources:

As always, please contact your regional Autism Resource Specialist for information and assistance. Find one here.

Vickie Dieter can be contacted at vdieter@autismsociety-nc.org or 828-256-1566.


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