Alternate assessments: What you need to know

At a glance

  • Most students with IEPs take the same standardized tests as their peers without IEPs.

  • A small number of students with IEPs take alternate assessments, which aren’t based on grade-level academic standards.

  • Taking alternate assessments might mean a student is not on the path to receive a high school diploma.

Federal law requires states to test all students in reading and math once a year in grades 3–8 and once in high school. For kids with IEPs, there are only two assessment options:

  • Take the general assessment for the grade they’re enrolled in; or

  • Take an alternate assessment that is not based on the academic standards for their grade level.

Most kids with IEPs take the general assessment. Many of these kids use accommodations, like extra time on the test or having the questions read out loud.

Only a small number of kids with IEPs are unable to take the general assessment even with accommodations. These kids take alternate assessments. These tests have less depth and breadth than the general assessment.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) says alternate assessments are for students with “significant cognitive disabilities.” These students are often classified under special education law as having an intellectual disability. (The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act has 13 disability categories. Intellectual disabilities is one of the categories. Learning disabilities is a separate category.)

The academic standards that students with intellectual disabilities are expected to meet might be very different from those of their peers in general education. Alternate assessments enable schools to measure progress from year to year for, say, a teen who is working to master concepts of money and time.

According to ESSA, no more than 1 percent of all students should take alternate assessments. The law says schools need to explain to parents that taking this type of test means kids are not being measured on grade-level standards. The law also says parents need to be told that students who take alternate assessments may not be on a path to receive a high school diploma.

Some states used to offer other kinds of alternate assessments. But these tests have been phased out as standardized testing has become more accessible to kids with learning disabilities, motor impairments, and other issues that aren’t a sign of low intelligence.

By limiting the use of alternate assessments, ESSA is requiring schools to assess most students with IEPs using the same tests as their peers in general education. Using the same grade-level standards helps schools maintain high expectations when teaching students with disabilities.

That’s why seeking accommodations may be better for your child in the long run than seeking alternate assessments. If you or the school is interested in pursuing alternate assessment, be sure to get clarification about what this might mean for your child’s future.

Key takeaways

  • About 1 percent of all students take alternate assessments.

  • Many of the students who take these tests have intellectual disabilities.

  • By limiting the use of alternate assessments, ESSA is requiring schools to assess most students with IEPs using the same tests as their peers in general education.


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