States are finding different ways to adapt their accountability systems to include all students, because the achievement of students with disabilities has typically lagged behind that of their non-disabled peers, and because recent state and federal laws require the participation of all students. Special educators are considering how, rather than whether, students with disabilities will participate in statewide assessments, while assessment policies themselves have become more flexible in accommodating the administration of those tests. Curriculum experts are placing increased emphasis on teaching students with disabilities the same content and skills being taught to their non-disabled peers, while regular and special educators are working together to adapt curriculum and instruction so diverse learners may participate more fully in academic activities.
A comparatively small number of students with the most complex and significant disabilities, though, have been more difficult to include in statewide assessments. Academic skills and subject matter have not always been a part of the curriculum for this population, and information has not systematically been collected on what these students have learned. The performance of these students is not easily determined using the same standardized paper-and-pencil tests used with the majority of students, but since participation in these assessments is now required, states have had to decide how best to include these students by giving them "alternate assessments." Alternate assessment methods and formats are determined by each state individually, though their common purpose is to improve instruction for these students and report their academic performance. By using alternate assessments with this population, schools can document what is being taught for purposes of system accountability, and demonstrate to parents and the public to what degree each of these students has learned state standards.
A majority of states have adopted individual academic portfolios as the most effective method of assessment for these "difficult-to-assess" students. Student portfolios accommodate a range of approaches to document learning, and afford teachers options for determining the ideal time, place, and method to assess their students. Portfolios provide teachers, students, and their parents with tangible evidence of student performance and feedback on their progress. While the contents of each is unique, their structure allows for evaluation and scoring using uniform criteria that can be shared with teachers beforehand.
The demands of creating and managing portfolios, and compiling this information for submission to the state, however, requires additional expertise on the part of teachers and time in which to complete this work. This fundamental change in classroom practice has required states to make a strong and continued commitment to provide professional development and technical assistance to educators who conduct alternate assessments, and to engage in an open dialogue about the efficiency, rigor, and usefulness of the process with those who are most affected by it.