California Department of Education
Taking Center Stage – Act II

Assessing students with special needs

Universal access is a term that essentially calls for fairness. It means that students with special needs will receive differentiated instruction and educational support so that they can access the content standards. According to the Mathematics Framework for California Public Schools, Kindergarten Through Grade Twelve, providing universal access means that teachers “Assess each student’s understanding at the start of instruction and continue to do so frequently as instruction progresses, and use the results of assessment for student placement and program planning."1 It also means that instruction, assignments, and assessments are universally accessible and are aligned with each other.

To ensure accessibility, California has developed a detailed system of accommodations and modifications for students with special needs or those who are learning English as a second language. These variations, accommodations, and modifications ensure that both special education students and English learners (ELs) receive a fair appraisal of their progress toward mastery of the standards.

One modification for ELs is the use of a translation glossary/word list. The Los Angeles County Office of Education has used this approved variation and produced two compact discs that include science vocabulary for approximately 15 languages. The California Alternative Performance Assessment (CAPA) is an alternate assessment for children with severe cognitive disabilities. The CAPA Core Adaptations list provides an overview of allowed modifications.

The reauthorized Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Building the Legacy: IDEA 2004 (Outside Source), eliminated the need to use a discrepancy model for determining special education eligibility. Part B, Section 614(a)(6), contains a provision on diagnosing a specific learning disability (SLD):

. . . a local educational agency shall not be required to take into consideration whether a child has a severe discrepancy between achievement and intellectual ability in oral expression, listening comprehension, written expression, basic reading skill, reading comprehension, mathematical calculation, or mathematical reasoning.

However, a local educational agency (LEA) may use a process that determines if the child responds to scientific, research-based intervention as a part of the evaluation procedures described in Section 614(b)(2) and (3). This new model is referred to as the Response to Intervention (RtI).2

The federal IDEA regulations about universal access specify that a child shall not be determined to be a child with a disability if the determination is due to a lack of appropriate instruction in reading or mathematics or limited English proficiency. The federal IDEA regulations dated August 16, 2006 further lay out the criteria for identifying students with specific learning disabilities and encourage districts to implement a general education.

Under federal guidelines for universal access, programs for special education students should result in educational benefit that can be measured in a variety of ways:

  1. Achieving passing marks
  2. Advancing from grade to grade
  3. Making progress toward meeting goals and objectives
  4. Improved scores on statewide or district assessments
  5. Assessment strategies that conform to the findings of the Larry P. Task Force Report, Policy and Alternative Assessment Guideline Recommendations (Outside Source) suggest the following types of developmentally appropriate assessments:
    • Developmental assessment
    • Dynamic assessment
    • Ecological assessment
    • Information processing
    • Neuropsychological assessment
    • Psychological processing
    • Skills within subjects3

The California Department of Education’s Special Education Web site includes a section on Services and Resources. Included on that page are links to information about the California High School Exit Examination (CAHSEE) and CAPA.

California's Statewide Assessment System

California Alternate Performance Assessment (CAPA) and English learners

1Mathematics Framework for California Public Schools—Kindergarten Through Grade Twelve (PDF; 3.2MB, 411pp.). Sacramento: California Department of Education, 2005, 229.
2Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) of 2004 (Outside Source), Public Law 108-446, 108th Congress.
3Holly Evans-Pongratz and Bernard Yaklin, Revisiting Larry P. v. Riles—A CASP Convention 2006 Report. (PDF; Outside Source), February 2006.


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