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National Center on Secondary Education and Transition: Creating opportunities for youth with disabilities to achieve successful futures.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What assessments are conducted at the national level?

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) conducts periodic assessments in various subject areas, including reading, mathematics, science, writing, U.S. history, civics, geography, and the arts. The NAEP results, often called the Nation’s Report Card, provide information to policymakers at both state and national levels about how various groups of students, such as fourth graders, are performing academically. Policymakers then use this information to determine how well the nation is meeting its educational goals. NAEP does not provide results for school districts, school buildings, or individual students.

Are students with disabilities included in NAEP assessments?

Until 1996, NAEP did not have a policy allowing assessment accommodations for either students with disabilities or for English language learners, so many students were excluded from the NAEP assessments. In 1996, NAEP began the process of changing its policy so that reported data would include students who could participate if accommodations were allowed (Quenemoen, Lehr, Thurlow, & Massanari, 2001). The accommodations that are allowed are those already permitted in state or district level testing programs, unless the accommodation alters what is being tested. Starting in 2002, NAEP will only report data from samples where accommodations are allowed.

See information on the inclusion of students with disabilities in NAEP assessments (

Are students with disabilities included in state assessments?

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that students with disabilities participate in state and district-wide assessments, with accommodations when appropriate. Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) also addresses participation in assessments, requiring that all students in the grades being assessed are included (Elmore & Rothman, 1999). Accommodations for students with disabilities and limited English proficiency are allowed in order to measure the achievement of those students relative to the state’s standards.

Including all students in state and district level assessments is not only required by law, it is also good educational practice. Such requirements ensure that educators, school districts, and states are accountable for the academic progress of all students.

For more information, visit the Web site of the National Center on Educational Outcomes ( and click on the "Accountability" and "Participation" topic areas.

What kinds of accommodations are allowed for students with disabilities on district and state assessments?

District level guidelines and the contents of student’s IEPs determine the use of accommodations on district level tests. Students’ IEPs must also indicate accommodations needed for participation in state level tests. Each state has written guidelines for the use of accommodations on assessments. See State Web Sites for Accommodations Information page on the NCEO Web site (

Some commonly used state level assessment accommodations include:

  • repeating directions
  • providing large print or Braille editions
  • providing extended or unlimited time to take the test
  • allowing students to take the test across multiple days
  • allowing students to take subtests in a different order
  • allowing students to use reference aids
  • permitting students to take the test in a separate room
  • allowing students to use a word processor

In both district and state level testing situations, the accommodations selected should be closely aligned with those used during the instructional process at the classroom level (DeStefano, Shriner, & Lloyd, 2001).

See the Accommodations Web Topic on the NCEO Web site (

What happens when students with disabilities are unable to participate in state and district large-scale assessments, even with accommodations?

The 1997 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) required that states have "alternate assessments" in place for those students unable to participate in the regular state assessment (Thompson & Thurlow, 2000). These alternate assessments measure the performance of students who have a unique array of educational goals and experiences, and who differ greatly in their ability to respond to stimuli, solve problems, and provide responses.

An alternate assessment is neither a traditional large-scale assessment nor an individualized diagnostic assessment. Instead, an alternate assessment is a different form of assessment that is based on "expanded" or "adjusted" versions of the state’s existing academic content standards. Using variations of the state content standards as the basis for this form of assessment ensures that ALL students are included in state accountability systems, and provides information about how a school, district, or state is doing in terms of overall student performance.

See the Alternate Assessment Topic on the NCEO Web site (

Who decides what form of the state or district assessment students take, and which accommodations students can use?

Decisions about which assessment a student should take and what accommodations are to be used are made by the student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) team, and are formally documented in the IEP.

What is out-of-level testing?

Out-of-level testing typically means that a student who is in one grade is assessed using a test developed for students in another grade. Other terms used to describe the practice of testing at what is generally a lower level include "off-grade-level," "instructional-level," or "functional-level" testing.

The practice of assessing students using a lower-level version of a test is controversial. Individuals who support the use of out-of-level testing can cite benefits, while those who oppose it can list various concerns. Because out-of-level testing is recommended most often for students with disabilities, it is important to study the extent to which it is used, the conditions under which it is used, and the consequences of its use.

What are graduation tests and what is their impact on students with disabilities?

More and more states and districts are implementing graduation tests. These tests are considered "high stakes", because the results determine whether or not students will receive a high school diploma. States and districts using "high stakes" exit exams and employing various diploma options face many issues related to the impact of these practices on students with disabilities (Quenemoen, Lehr, Thurlow, & Massanari, 2001).

Discussion of these issues usually focuses on the meaning of a high school diploma versus the possible negative long-term effects for youth who do not receive diplomas. The consequences of graduation and diploma policies last well beyond the time when a student is in school. As state and districts consider these options, efforts to make the high school diploma mean something should be combined with efforts to prevent negative effects on students.

See the Graduation Requirements Topic on the NCEO Web site (


DeStefano, L., Shriner, J. G., & Lloyd, C. A. (2001). Teacher decision making in participation of students with disabilities in large-scale assessment. Journal of Exceptional Children, 68(1), 7-22.

Elmore, R. F., & Rothman, R. (Eds.). (1999). Testing, teaching, and learning: A guide for states and school districts. Committee on Title 1 Testing and Assessment, Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education, National Research Council. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Quenemoen, R. F., Lehr, C. A., Thurlow, M. L., & Massanari, C. B. (2001). Students with disabilities in standards-based assessment and accountability systems: Emerging issues, strategies, and recommendations (Synthesis Report 37). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes. Retrieved from

Thompson, S. J., & Thurlow, M. L. (2000). State alternate assessments: Status as IDEA alternate assessment requirements take effect (Synthesis Report No. 35). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes. Retrieved from

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This page was last updated on November 29, 2017.