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The IDEA is explicit and detailed about testing and assessment procedures used to qualify students for special education. A number of legislative provisions are designed to protect students and ensure the fair, nondiscriminatory use of tests. These provisions stipulate that decisions about children must be based on more than a single test, that tests must be validated for the purpose for which they are used, that students must be assessed in all areas related to a suspected disability, and that evaluations must be made by a multidisciplinary team. Children are generally tested in one-to-one situations with various school professionals (e.g., school psychologist, an occupational therapist, a speech and language therapist) on tests that can be individually adapted to match the child's level.
Such highly individualized testing, conducted for the purpose of diagnosis or instructional planning, differs considerably from the large-scale, group-administered assessments of achievement that are the primary focus of this report. The Congress nonetheless expressed serious concern about racial disproportions in special education when it reauthorized the IDEA in 1997.2
Testing thus plays a critical role in determining who qualifies for special education services, but traditionally accountability in special education has not relied mainly on assessment. Rather, it has centered on the individualized education program, an essentially private document that lays out the educational goals and curriculum of an individual student. Each IEP is designed to reflect one child's capabilities and to specify the services necessary for the child to benefit from that curriculum. IEPs thus vary considerably from student to student and have varying degrees of relationship with the general curriculum. For example, one IEP may call for a sign-language interpreter to enable a deaf student to participate fully in the general education curriculum; another may establish a set of instructional objectives that focus on the goal of independent living—telling time, personal hygiene, and basic safety skills.
By law the IEP also serves as a device for monitoring a student's progress. Classroom-based assessment, teacher judgment, and other measures that are sensitive to small and specific changes are typically used for
As part of this legislation, the Congress requested a National Research Council study to examine issues related to the overrepresentation of minority children in special education.