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March 1, 1994
Vol. 51
No. 6

“All” Means “All”—Including Students with Disabilities

The National Center on Educational Outcomes offers some guidelines for how to include students with disabilities in performance-based educational systems.

The rhetoric abounds when people talk about education based on student outcomes and performance. Invariably, we hear the phrase “all students.” For example, key provisions guiding the reform efforts in Kentucky are that student performance outcomes are for all students and that schools are required to help all students successfully meet them (National Governors' Association 1993). Similarly, proponents of outcome-based education state that “all students can succeed” (Spady and Marshall 1991). Thus, students in special education are not viewed as separate from the rest of the student body. In fact, Winners All from the National Association of State Boards of Education (1992) argues that systems of education, including their accountability systems, must include students with disabilities. Soon all educators will be asked to provide evidence of the progress or lack of progress that all students are making toward the goals, outcomes, and/or standards established as necessary for improving education in America (Ysseldyke et al. 1992).
It is now time to ask what this rhetoric means when trying to build accountability systems based on outcomes and performance. To us at the National Center on Educational Outcomes, an array of opportunities and responsibilities arises as we consider how to include all students when identifying outcomes, assessing students, defining acceptable performance, and reporting on the progress of our schools in meeting outcomes.
  1. Make an up-front commitment to include all students in your system of accountability for outcomes and student performance.
  2. Promote inclusion of all students in assessments through reasonable accommodations.
  3. Be broad when setting up your outcomes and performance levels (consider more than academic achievement or literacy).
  4. Build efforts on existing data collection.

Include All Students in Accountability Systems

Accountability for all students is essential. Unfortunately, this is not the usual approach even at the national and state levels. Based on our surveys, we know that students with disabilities are excluded from many data collection programs (McGrew et al. 1992). In most statewide testing programs, some students with disabilities are assessed. Yet, data on these students can be identified in only 35 states (Shriner and Thurlow 1993). Remember, data that cannot be identified cannot be used to make judgments in educational accountability for students with disabilities (see fig. 1).

Figure 1. Estimated Percentage of Students with Disabilities Included in Statewide Assessments

Decisions to include or exclude students with disabilities usually are made at the local level. In most states, the team that develops the student's individualized education program (IEP) also determines whether the student will take part in assessment programs. Closer attention to how these decisions are made will be required when assessments are used in accountability frameworks at all levels of the educational system.
Consider the following recent dilemma. A principal whose middle school on the East Coast was part of the 1992 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) writing assessment was faced with the decision to include or exclude students with IEPs in the testing situation. Although NAEP has guidelines for making these decisions, the district's central administration told the principal that the NAEP examiners wanted decisions to be made on the basis of “the best judgments of the principals as to which students would be able to make it through the test.” Concluding that the “national” assessment should reflect “all” members of the school community, this principal included all IEP students except one who might be adversely affected and placed under inordinate stress (part of the NAEP criteria). Other principals, it was found out later, passed the decision-making responsibility to the teachers. Most students on IEPs in those buildings were exempted from the NAEP exam, and no one appeared interested in the reasons for the decisions. Simply put, the philosophy of individual principals influenced the inclusiveness of the samples from school to school.
An inclusive accountability system involves more than just having students take part in regular assessments. It also entails an alternative assessment to measure the performance of students who do not take part in the regular assessment. This is what Kentucky does. Up to 2 percent of students in each school may participate in an alternative portfolio-based assessment to demonstrate their performance on state outcomes. Language in proposed federal legislation (Goals 2000, Educate America Act) and in national guidelines for standards and assessments (for example, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, National Committee on Science Education Standards and Assessment) is not limited to selected groups of students. Every student is to be included in assessment systems because equity and excellence are viewed as necessary. The question then becomes “Are the decisions made in your local agency consistent with this philosophy?”
Accountability involves more than just tallying the number of students who take part and the number of students who are excluded from testing programs. It must also provide evidence of the degree to which these decisions are based on sound educational and psychological judgment. Students who are exempted from traditional testing programs will need to be accounted for in some other manner. While it may be unrealistic to expect all students to take part in the same testing program, it is not unrealistic to expect that as our nation progresses toward higher standards and better outcomes, students with disabilities will be afforded the opportunity to demonstrate their progress toward these outcomes and achievement of skills that are important for their future as citizens in our society.

Make Reasonable Accommodations

To profit from their educational experiences, students with disabilities often need adaptations in instruction. For the most part, individuals with disabilities make adaptations or use accommodations in order to function as contributing members of our society. We see many examples of how our society contributes to the quality of life for numerous individuals by providing reasonable accommodations. For example, it makes sense for a person who is blind to use Braille to read or to listen to a tape recorder to comprehend the contents of a book. Those with reading disabilities will continue to need to adjust their reading time, in order to successfully progress through school and beyond it to become lifelong learners. Some of these accommodations are easier than others for us to accept as reasonable.
Just as it is appropriate to use accommodations and adaptations during instruction, it is appropriate to use them during assessments. This should not be the hotly debated issue that it is. Unfortunately, we have allowed measurement experts to tell us that any change in testing procedures or materials reduces the technical adequacy of the assessment. Instead of letting measurement experts off so easily, we should be challenging them to show us how to develop technically adequate assessments that provide reasonable accommodations for those needing them.
This challenge is being approached in different ways. Schools in Maryland, for example, are field-testing an extensive list of approved assessment modifications to promote the participation of as many students as possible in the statewide assessment program (Maryland State Department of Education 1993). Any students who are not included in the assessment are counted, and that number is included in district report cards. In Kentucky and Alaska, any accommodation used during instruction is also used during assessment (Shriner and Thurlow 1993). Such approaches to accountability are well worth pursuing because, after all, “One of the major reasons for offering special [testing] arrangements is to enable disabled persons to be treated and judged, insofar as possible, by the same standards as other people” (Educational Testing Service 1993). Current law (Americans with Disabilities Act) requires that accommodations for individuals with disabilities be made when assessments have an impact on their futures.

Decide on Important Outcomes

When setting up an educational system based on outcomes and performance, we must first think about the results we want our students to achieve. The six national education goals emphasize academics (Porter 1993), as do national data collection programs and statewide assessment systems. But we know that our hopes for children in our schools, and the hopes of their parents, extend beyond academics.
  • presence and participation,
  • accommodation and adaptation,
  • physical health,
  • contribution and citizenship,
  • responsibility and independence,
  • academic and functional literacy,
  • personal and social adjustment,
  • and satisfaction.

Build Efforts on Existing Data Collection

Possibly data are already available on the extent to which students with disabilities are achieving academic and social or behavioral outcomes in your school. When the National Center on Educational Outcomes asked state data managers, several reported that data on academic, social, and behavioral outcomes could be available, but that they would have to be pulled out of the larger set of general education assessment information. One state director of special education found to her surprise that, without much hassle, useful data were available in her state's management and information system. This state director now examines portions of the data set on a monthly basis in order to make more informed policy decisions.
  • Are we making the best use of the data that currently exist?
  • Which decisions being made are based on these data?
  • Do the data match existing needs?
  • What data do we need in order to make more informed decisions that will enhance the education of all students?
It is possible to find more information, or perhaps gather additional information, without completely overhauling the assessment system. As more accountability and program evaluation decisions are made, we must look for better and more expedient ways to gather policy-relevant information.

Do Our Personal Best

The first step in making special education a part of your accountability system is deciding that the information is important. Roughly 10 percent of the school population is supported by special education efforts. As Anderson (1992) pointed out, accountability and reform decisions affect all students, in both intended and unintended ways. Therefore, decisions should be based on data that are inclusive of all students.
A curriculum committee in a Kentucky school recently discovered the value of information from a performance assessment system that included all students. After reviewing the data in the area of science, the committee found a group of students who did not even know what a microscope was. Further investigation revealed that the students unfamiliar with the microscope were all being removed from science class for special instruction. None of them had been exposed to the curriculum, even though many had the capability to master the science content. Certainly new and valuable learning opportunities could be opened to these students. Shortly thereafter, participation of students with disabilities in science classes jumped dramatically.
The entire outcomes, standards, performance, and accountability enterprise is intended to motivate all students to achieve higher levels—in concert with their personal best. All students have the right, and must receive the opportunity, to learn to meet high, rigorous content standards. “All” can mean “all.” Knowledge, procedures, and technology are developing rapidly, making it possible for students with disabilities to be part of the learning benefits we expect from moving to a results-oriented education system.
As educators, we can set the example by putting forth our best efforts to help as many students as possible learn more and lead more productive lives. Anything less implies that our own personal best is not important enough to move us to higher standards.

Anderson, R. J. (1992). “Educational Reform: Does It All Add Up?” Teaching Exceptional Children 24, 2: 4.

Educational Testing Service. (1993). Guide to the Use of the Graduate Record Examinations Program: 1993–94. Princeton, N.J.: Educational Testing Service.

Maryland State Department of Education. (May 17, 1993). Guidelines for Exemptions and Accommodations for Maryland Statewide Assessment Programs (1993–94 Field Test Copy).

McGrew, K. S., M. L. Thurlow, J. G. Shriner, and A. N. Spiege. (1992). Inclusion of Students with Disabilities in National and State Data Collection Programs. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes.

National Association of State Boards of Education. (1992). Winners All: A Call for Inclusive Schools. Alexandria, Va.: NASBE.

National Governors' Association. (1993). Redesigning an Education System: Early Observations from Kentucky. Washington, D.C.: NGA.

Porter, A. (1993). “School Delivery Standards.” Educational Researcher 22, 5: 24–30.

Shriner, J. G., and M. L. Thurlow. (1993). State Special Education Outcomes 1992. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes.

Spady, W. G., and K. J. Marshall. (1991). “Beyond Traditional Outcome-Based Education.” Educational Leadership 49, 2: 67–75.

Vanderwood, M. L., J. E. Ysseldyke, and M. L. Thurlow. (1993). Consensus Building: A Process for Selecting Educational Outcomes and Indicators. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes.

Ysseldyke, J. E., and M. L. Thurlow. (1993). Self-Study Guide to the Development of Educational Outcomes and Indicators. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes.

Ysseldyke, J. E., M. L. Thurlow, and J. G. Shriner. (1992). “Outcomes Are for Special Educators Too.” Teaching Exceptional Children 25, 1: 36–50.

Ysseldyke, J., M. L. Thurlow, and C. Gilman. (1993a). Educational Outcomes and Indicators for Early Childhood (Age 3). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes.

Ysseldyke, J., M. L. Thurlow, and C. Gilman. (1993b). Educational Outcomes and Indicators for Early Childhood (Age 6). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes.

Ysseldyke, J., M. L. Thurlow, and C. Gilman. (1993c). Educational Outcomes and Indicators for Individuals at the Post-School Level. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes.

Ysseldyke, J., M. L. Thurlow, and C. Gilman. (1993d). Educational Outcomes and Indicators for Students Completing School. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes.

End Notes

1 For more details about these key strategies, see the reports produced by the National Center on Educational Outcomes listed below.

James G. Shriner has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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