A collaborative publication of the Center for Parent Information and Resources (CPIR) and The Advocacy Institute
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is the newest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)—the nation’s major federal law related to public education in grades pre-kindergarten through high school. Passed in December 2015, ESSA made significant changes to its predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act.
Both ESSA and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) require all students with disabilities to be included in all state and districtwide assessments—including assessments required by ESSA—with appropriate accommodations. (See Academic Assessment Fact Sheet.)
Students with disabilities must participate in the general assessments for their enrolled grade, with only one exception for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. For this small group of students, ESSA allows states to adopt alternate academic achievement standards and provide for alternate assessments aligned with the state’s challenging academic standards and alternate academic achievement standards.
Participation in state assessments is critical if schools are to be held accountable for the progress of students with disabilities. It is important that students with significant disabilities are included in assessments so that their performance is measured and their instruction is targeted for improvement as needed.
This fact sheet gives you a basic overview of the alternate academic achievement standards and alternate assessment provisions contained in ESSA.
1. Do the state academic content standards apply to students with the most significant cognitive disabilities?
Yes. Academic content standards describe what is taught in each grade and apply to all students. Therefore, all students are required to have instruction based on the academic content standards for their enrolled grade.
2. What are alternate academic achievement standards?
A state’s academic achievement standards describe how much students are expected to learn in order to be proficient on a state’s general assessment. Alternate academic achievement standards set an expectation of performance that differs in complexity from a grade-level achievement standard.
ESSA permits, but does not require, states to develop alternate academic achievement standards. Specifically, states may, through a documented and validated standards-setting process, adopt alternate academic achievement standards for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities, provided those standards:
—are aligned with the challenging state academic content standards;
—promote access to the general education curriculum, consistent with IDEA;
—reflect professional judgment as to the highest possible standards achievable by such students;
—are designated in the individualized education program (IEP) developed under section 614(d)(3) of IDEA for each such student as the academic achievement standards that will be used for the student;
—are aligned to ensure that a student who meets the alternate academic achievement standards is on track to pursue postsecondary education or employment, consistent with the purposes of Public Law 93-112 (Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act) to maximize opportunities for individuals with significant disabilities for competitive integrated employment. (Section 1111 (b)(1)(E))
Importantly, ESSA prohibits states from developing or implementing any other alternate or modified academic achievement standards for use in meeting the Act’s requirements (Section 1111 (b)(1)(E)(ii)). This provision expressly prevents states from developing any alternate assessments other than an alternate assessment based on alternate achievement standards (AA-AAS) developed exclusively for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities, such as the Alternate Assessment on Modified Achievement Standards previously authorized by the U.S. Dept. of Education in 2005 and rescinded in 2015.
3. Who determines when a student with the most significant cognitive disabilities should participate in an AA-AAS?
ESSA clearly states that the IEP team determines when a student with a significant cognitive disability should participate in an AA-AAS. However, the determination should be consistent with guidelines established by the state. (Section 1111 (b)(2)(D)(ii)(I))
4. What are alternate assessments aligned with alternate academic achievement standards (AA-AAS)?
ESSA allows states to provide for alternate assessments aligned with the challenging state academic standards and alternate achievement standards (as described above) for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities.
However, ESSA spells out several important conditions for AA-AAS (Section 1111 (b)(2)(D). In order to administer an AA-AAS, the state must:
ENSURE that, as part of the process for developing the IEP, the parents of such students are clearly informed that their child’s academic achievement will be measured based on such alternate standards; and how participation in such assessments may delay or otherwise affect the student from completing the requirements for a regular high school diploma;
ENSURE that participation in such assessment promotes, as consistent with IDEA (20 U.S.C. 1400 et seq.), the involvement and progress of students with the most significant cognitive disabilities in the general education curriculum;
DESCRIBE in the state plan the steps the state has taken, to the extent feasible, to incorporate universal design for learning in alternate assessments;
DESCRIBE in the state plan that general and special education teachers, and as well as other appropriate staff, know how to administer the alternate assessments; and make appropriate use of accommodations for students with disabilities on all alternate assessments;
DEVELOP, disseminate information on, and promote the use of appropriate accommodations; and
ENSURE that taking an AA-AAS does not preclude a student with the most significant cognitive disabilities who takes an AA-AAS from attempting to complete the requirements for a regular high school diploma.
5. Is there a limit to the number of students with the most significant cognitive disabilities who can be assessed using the state’s AA-AAS?
ESSA states that the total number of students assessed using an AA-AAS may not exceed 1% of the total number of all students assessed in such a subject in the state (Section 1111 (b)(2)(D)(i)(I)). This translates to roughly 10% of students with disabilities.
6. What accommodations must be provided to students with disabilities?
ESSA requires states to provide the appropriate accommodations—such as interoperability with, and ability to use, assistive technology, for all students with disabilities (as defined by IDEA), including students with the most significant cognitive disabilities, as well as students covered under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act— that are necessary to measure the academic achievement of such children.
ESSA requires states to provide the appropriate accommodations that are necessary to measure the academic achievement of students with disabilities receiving IDEA services, including students with the most significant cognitive disabilities, and students covered under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
Accommodations can include, for example, assistive technology and or assessments that are accessible through the use of assistive technology, for example.
Accommodations provided to a student during state assessments must also be provided during classroom instruction, classroom assessments, and district assessments. However, some instructional accommodations may not be appropriate for use on certain statewide assessments. For example, reading a test to the student may invalidate the results of a reading test in certain grades. Some states have determined certain accommodations to be “standard” or “nonstandard” and may instruct IEP teams to only select accommodations that the state has determined will not invalidate the results of a particular test or portion of a test.
7. Who decides the accommodations that will be provided to students with disabilities on alternate academic assessments aligned with alternate academic achievement standards?
The IDEA requires the student’s IEP team to make decisions regarding the accommodations to be provided during assessments. Students must be provided accommodations based on individual need as long as the accommodations do not invalidate the assessment. Assessment accommodations should be documented in the student’s IEP.
Importantly, while the IEP team is responsible for determining both the type of assessment and the specific accommodations a student needs to participate in assessments, the IEP team may not exempt a student from participating.
8. How is the performance of students who take an AA-AAS reported?
The performance of all students with disabilities (those taking the general assessments or an AA-AAS) are reported in the “students with disabilities” subgroup at the school, district, and state levels.
IDEA Section 618 requires states to report annually on assessment of students with disabilities. States must report separately on the number of students with disabilities in the following categories (separately for reading/ or language arts and mathematics):
- not assessed or did not receive a valid score;
- general assessment without accommodations;
- general assessment with accommodations;
- alternate assessments.
ESSA requires states and school district report cards to include the number and percentages of students with the most significant cognitive disabilities who take the alternate assessment on AA-AAS by grade and subject. (Section 1111 (h)(1)(C)(XI)) and Section 1111 (h)(2)(C)).
9. Can students with disabilities be assessed using an out-of-level assessment?
No. An out-of-level assessment—an assessment taken at a grade level below which the student is currently enrolled—is not allowed for the purpose of accountability under ESSA.
There are only two types of assessments that may be used to assess students with disabilities: the general assessment or the AA-AAS. Students must be assessed using the assessment for their enrolled grade.
10. Where can I find more information about my state’s alternate assessment?
More information on alternate assessments for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities should be available on your state’s department of education
website. Use the directory at:
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Authorship | This guide has been produced in a partnership between the Center for Parent Information and Resources (CPIR) and The Advocacy Institute under a cooperative agreement from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs.