Standardized testing can be a complicated area for students and parents to understand. Federal law requires states to test all students in grades 3–8 each year. This includes students with disabilities.
Most students will take the same test. Many students with disabilities use accommodations such as extra time on the test or having the questions read out loud. These accommodations enable students with disabilities to take the same test as their peers without disabilities.
However, a small number of students with disabilities take a different kind of test. These tests are called alternate assessments (or alternative assessments). About 1 percent of all students take them. Most of these students are not on a path to receive a high school diploma. That’s important to keep in mind if you and the school are considering this route for your child.
“Seeking accommodations may be better for your child in the long run than seeking alternate assessments.”
There are three types of alternate assessments. Here’s how they work and who they’re designed for:
1. Alternate Assessments Based on Alternate Achievement Standards (AA-AAS)
This is the most common type of alternate assessment. It’s designed for students with “significant cognitive disabilities.” These students are usually classified as intellectually disabled. (This generally excludes most students with learning disabilities. That’s because one of the criteria for being diagnosed with a learning disability is having average or above-average intelligence.)
The content that intellectually disabled students are taught and the standards they’re expected to meet might be very different from those of their grade-level peers. Alternate assessments enable schools to measure progress from year to year for, say, a teenager who is still struggling to learn the alphabet.
2. Alternate Assessments Based on Modified Achievement Standards (AA-MAS)
Students in this category are receiving grade-level instruction. But they’re progressing at a rate that makes it unlikely they’ll meet grade-level standards.
These students may receive different kinds of modifications to what they’re taught or how they’re tested. For example, an alternate assessment might use the same questions that are on the general assessment. But the student might not have to answer all of the questions. Or the multiple-choice questions might be pared down so there are fewer answers to choose from.
Using assessments with modified standards for what students are expected to learn is becoming less common in the U.S. Many states no longer use this option. It’s hard for states to meet the federal requirements for this kind of test.
3. Alternate Assessments Based on Grade-Level Achievement Standards (AA-GLAS)
This form of alternate assessment is designed for students who are receiving grade-level instruction but need accommodations that aren’t available on the general assessment. For example, instead of taking a multiple-choice test, a high-schooler with dyspraxia might present a body of research on a given topic.
This type of alternate assessment lets students show they’re able to meet grade-level expectations. This option is only available in a few states. But more may start to offer it in the future as states begin to use Common Core State Standards.
Standardized testing can be very stressful for students and parents. But assessing all students using the same standardized tests pushes schools to keep aiming high 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’re interested in pursuing alternate assessment, talk to your child’s teacher. Be sure to get clarification about what this decision means for your child’s future.