Pamela White, Ed.S.
June 14, 2023

Understanding alternate assessment in education for students with severe cognitive disabilities

Learn how alternate assessment in education can test for learning and skills in students with severe cognitive disabilities.

Assessing students with disabilities can often seem like a difficult task.  And when it comes to assessing students with severe intellectual or cognitive disabilities, the task can seem even more difficult. Parents often wonder how educators can find out what students with severe cognitive disabilities know, and what they learned during the school year. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that all students with disabilities take state and district assessments. Therefore, we must include students with severe cognitive disabilities when it’s time to do these assessments. The law also requires each state to have an alternate assessment (alt assessment) available for students with severe cognitive disabilities who cannot take the regular one. In order to understand alternate assessment in education, we must first understand the meaning of severe cognitive disabilities.

Severe Intellectual or Cognitive Disabilities Explained

Severe cognitive disabilities, sometimes called low-incidence disabilities, are those that significantly impact a student’s ability to function.  Areas that are affected include the student’s intellectual functioning (ability to learn and problem solve) and adaptive behaviors (ability to interact socially and perform daily living skills). This means that the student requires extensive support in many areas.  

The education evaluation report for students with severe cognitive disabilities reports an IQ score, or cognitive developmental score, that is well below the standard score. (An I.Q. score of 70-75 or less is generally thought to show a significant intellectual disability.) Because of delays in the student’s intellectual and adaptive functioning, the student may not be able to take the regular assessment.

Alternate Assessment in Education

An alternate (alt) assessment is designed for students with severe cognitive disabilities who, because of the severity of their disability, are unable to do a regular assessment. The most common alt assessment most people may think about is the yearly state test. (This may have different names, for example MCAS in Massachusetts and LEAP 2025 in Louisiana. The alt assessments are called MCAS-alt and LEAP Connect, respectively.) The Every Student Succeeds Act (once known as the No Child Left Behind Act) requires each state to give yearly performance tests to students, beginning in third grade. Because IDEA requires students with disabilities to take those tests, states must have an alternate assessment available for students who cannot take the regular one. 

The purpose of the alt assessment is to allow students with severe cognitive disabilities to show what they know. Alt assessments contain several performance-based tasks and are generally done in a one-on-one setting. State test accommodations can, and should, be provided. (These should be written into your child’s IEP.)   You can find information about the alt assessment in each state on the U.S. Department of Education’s state contact map. Look up your state’s Special Education Agency.

Alternate Assessments in the Classroom

Alternate assessments in education include regular classroom tests in addition to the state tests. There are several alternative methods teachers can use to find out what students with severe cognitive disabilities know and have learned. 

Examples of alternate classroom assessments: 

  • Portfolio: a collection of student work that demonstrates a student’s knowledge of what has been taught and learned. 
  • Performance-based Task: students demonstrate what they know by doing assigned tasks while the teacher observes and scores their performance. 
  • Observational Data: a teacher observes how a student performs a specific skill during the course of instruction or the completion of an assigned task
  • Oral Assessment: if possible, the teacher observes students’ responses during questioning, class discussions, presentation, and group discussions to access what the student knows.

Who Qualifies for Alternate State Assessments?

Each state has its own criteria for who can take the alt assessment.  To see if a student qualifies, the IEP team must review this criteria, along with the student’s education evaluation and any other important information. 

Once a student qualifies for the alt assessment, the IEP team must also decide if the student will actually take it, and write that decision into the IEP. They must re-assess this each year at the IEP meeting. It is important to know that a student who qualifies does not have to take the alt assessment. It’s also important to know that a student who takes the alt assessments cannot usually get a regular high school diploma. They would instead get a “certificate of completion,” which may limit future opportunities.

 If you’re not sure if your child qualifies to take the state alt assessment, look in their IEP or ask the IEP team. If you disagree with the decision, you have the right to work with the IEP team to fix it. For example, say your child has a mild to moderate intellectual disability, does not speak, and uses a communication device. This student may be able to take the regular assessment as long as they have support, including using their device and other accommodations. In this case, if the IEP team suggests the alt assessment, you might advocate for added services to enable them to take the regular assessment. It’s always better to push students to their highest level, even if it requires more support.

How Alt Assessment Benefits Students with Severe Cognitive Disabilities

Alternate assessments in education can be helpful to students with severe cognitive disabilities in many ways. A non-traditional form of testing allows students with severe cognitive disabilities to be expressive and show what they know in ways that are possible for them.  It also gives schools data to understand the students’ knowledge, and identify areas that need further support. Assessment data should be reviewed and used to adjust instruction for all students, even students with severe cognitive disabilities. Educators can use the information to improve instruction, instructional strategies, individual student learning goals, and curriculum. By doing so, the data collected from the alt assessments can lead to better instructional practices, which could increase overall student achievement.

Learn More:

5 tips for families to help students with disabilities prepare for tests

  • Pamela White, Ed.S.

    Special Education Program Facilitator

    Pamela White is an Education Specialist who has worked with individuals with disabilities for almost 15 years. She facilitates special education programs for a Louisiana school district and serves as an Educator in Residence for the PROGRESS Center at The American Institute for Research. She is passionate about establishing high expectations for students with disabilities, developing reading skills, teaching with intention, and educators implementing high-leverage practices.

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