Disadvantages of Alternative Assessments in SPED

Instructor: Bethany Calderwood

Bethany has taught special education in grades PK-5 and has a master's degree in special education.

What do you know about alternative assessments? Would you be surprised to learn that some educators have serious concerns about their usefulness? In this lesson, you'll learn about some of the disadvantages of alternative assessments.

What Are Alternative Assessments?

The term ''alternative assessment'' may summon a wide variety of feelings - idealism, optimism, dread, resignation, and resentment. Your response to alternative assessments may be dependent upon your experience with them. Before we explore alternative assessments, let's define them.

Alternative assessments in special education are intended as a way to measure student learning without using a traditional examination. The most infamous alternative assessments are those required of students who are unable to participate in statewide standardized tests. Other alternative assessments might be required of students who take a middle school or high school course and are unable to complete the course exam.

In the case of alternative testing that replaces statewide standardized testing, the students involved have disabilities so severe that they are unable to participate in the standardized testing situation, even with accommodations. Often the students involved have multiple disabilities affecting cognition, communication, adaptive, and motor skills; sometimes their disabilities are also medical in nature.

Alternative assessments often allow students to address curriculum in three different ways:

  • At grade level - as long as there's an alternate means of testing
  • At entry points, which are foundational skills required to learn a grade-level curriculum (i.e. simple counting is an entry point to multiplication)
  • Through access skills, which are motor and communication skills that allow a student to participate in curricular activities

Why Use Alternative Assessments?

There are basic arguments for the use of alternative assessments. As the inclusion of individuals with disabilities increases, there is concern among families, educators, and administrators that all students have fair access to the same curriculum. Students with severe disabilities should not be cheated out of their opportunity to learn. If they are given curricular access, they must also be assessed. If they cannot perform a traditional test, they must be given an alternative.

What Are the Disadvantages?

While alternative assessments sound like a positive solution that creates fair curricular access for all students, there are areas of genuine concern. To help us understand these concerns, let us look at one student's case.

Laura is a tenth grader with significant multiple disabilities. She is nonverbal, and her cognitive understanding is similar to that of a three-year-old. She is in a wheelchair and has significant delays in motor skills and adaptive functioning. Her school attendance since preschool has been interrupted by regular hospital stays due to seizure activity and frequent pneumonia.

In Laura's state of residence, the alternative assessment requirements indicate that beginning in tenth grade, she must submit a portfolio assessment demonstrating grade-level competency in the subjects of math, English language arts, science, and social studies.

Use of Student Educational Time

Many students who take alternative assessments, especially for statewide standardized testing, are students who are functioning significantly below age and grade level.

Laura's individualized educational program (IEP) contains goals that focus on communication, self-help, and adaptive living skills. Since turning 14, Laura has had a detailed plan addressing her eventual transition from school into the community.

Due to state standardized testing requirements, Laura must spend valuable time working on tasks that can be included in her portfolio and can be said to address grade-level standards, even though she is addressing these standards using access skills.

While Laura's needs can be addressed to a certain extent in the context of a tenth grade curriculum, it is questionable whether that is the most effective use of her educational time.

Use of Educator Time

Most alternative assessments are portfolio-based.

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