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Test-Based Education for Students With Disabilities and English Language Learners: The Impact of Assessment Pressures on Educational Planning

by Peter Clyde Martin - 2016

The article presents a longitudinal study of an urban charter middle school to examine the impact testing pressures can have on the education of students with disabilities and English language learners, and how this may lead to a narrowing of the content they are taught. The study examines various sources of data, including the school’s evolving language, literacy, and math programs, high-stakes test results, school improvement plans, and written IEP goals. Over several years, as low test scores and failure to make AYP had an increasing impact on school life, skills specifically targeted on annual state tests became the guide for how math and literacy and language development were addressed. In effect, instruction in these areas became equated with test preparation. As ranges in proficiency led to ability grouping in pertinent courses, there was a narrowing of skills addressed in the lower-level classes that were entirely populated by students categorized as limited-English proficient and/or having a disability. In effect, this turned test preparation into the math and literacy curricula for these students, which in turn affected decisions regarding which skills would be addressed in students’ IEPs. Implications for schools, policy, and further research are suggested.

When I once asked a cohort of preservice teacher candidates what they thought the main responsibilities of public school educators were, I received the following answers:

“We have to make sure that all students receive the same opportunities even though American society is not equitable.”

“It’s our responsibility to ensure that poor students and minority students learn as much and as well as wealthy students and white students.”  

“It’s our responsibility to see that every student has the same potential to be successful and that we can’t give up on any of them.”

I was impressed by the fervor of these responses and the high bar these future teachers were setting for themselves and for the profession as a whole. I welcomed it also because I had grown up in the era of A Nation at Risk, when many voices warned about the gross inequities in American schools, the generally low math and reading skills, the lack of preparedness for the future among our students, and of course the clear, deep failure of our schools and our teachers. Given this formative background of my own, the uncompromising stance that I read in these prospective teachers’ responses, their unwillingness to accept failure and inequity, was inspiring.  

Of course, I also realized that this sentiment was not new, that in fact it had been codified into federal law over a decade before. Indeed, the executive summary of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) states very clearly that “states, school districts, and schools must be accountable for ensuring that all students, including disadvantaged students, meet high academic standards” (Bush, 2001). This demand that all students are entitled to a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) and that the learning expectations should be the same for all, no matter what, echoed the clear vehemence I had read in the responses of the future teachers. There is a twist, however, in other statements in this same executive summary that suggests a disregard for teachers that is less empowering than what I had read in the quotes. It establishes as a premise the fundamental notion that an enterprise works best when responsibility is placed closest to the most important activity of the enterprise, when those responsible are given the greatest latitude and support, and when those responsible are held accountable for producing results.  

Suddenly “school” became “enterprise,” “teaching” became “the most important activity of the enterprise,” and “successful teaching” became “producing results.” Not only was this a coldly instrumental, industrial perspective on something these preservice teachers viewed to be warmly human and personally quite jarring, but there was also a difference in how it regarded teaching and learning: not as a process that was made intricate by all the individual and circumstantial factors at play, but as a set of results. This was a major difference. NCLB goes on to describe what kinds of results are being sought (through universal standards), how their quality will be ascertained (through high-stakes testing), and how those responsible for “the most important activity of the enterprise” will be held accountable (through the adequate yearly progress mechanism).  

These preservice teachers also focused on something else that did not seem to quite fit with the intent of NCLB as represented in these quotes from the executive summary. For example, they offered the following:

“It is important for teachers to understand each student and how their needs and their learning are special. Then it becomes the teachers’ job to address those particular needs and learning.”

“It’s our responsibility to get to know our students, find out what they need to learn, and teach them accordingly.”

These perspectives seemed to be at odds with the pre-established push for “high academic standards” for all students regardless of the multitude of individual and contextual student factors. The quotes, on the contrary, seemed to insist that these individual student factors mattered and were significant in determining what should be taught. For me, this echoed a statement from another piece of federal legislation that is quite different in tenor from NCLB. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) states that special education is “specially designed instruction, at no cost to parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability” (Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, 2004, 20 U.S.C. • 1401 (29). The emphasis here is on “unique needs” that are not emphasized in NCLB. This law focuses on ensuring these “unique needs” are met rather than on what “results” are “produced.” The prospective teachers shared this focus on the individual needs of students. The question arises as to what extent the intent of our policies for educating all students, irrespective of individual differences, are indeed at odds with competing policies for planning for and addressing the different needs of different students.  How does this dissonance work in practice? How might it affect schools?

This article is intended to explore some of these concerns. After a brief overview of the needs of two “special” student population groups—students with disabilities and English language learners (ELLs)—I discuss some of the central issues related to high-stakes testing and what they can mean for these student subgroups in the context of universal standards. Data will then be presented on a school that was initially intent on addressing the individual needs and situations of students with disabilities and English language learners, but that was increasingly steered toward “producing results” that were predefined as questions on the same high-stakes standardized test that was administered to all students. I conclude with implications for educators, researchers, and policymakers.


The current focus on universal standards comes from a need for clear expectations (for students, educators, and society as a whole) of what outcomes every student ought to reach in order to be equipped for adulthood in our evolving society (Conley, 2014; Fisher, Frey, & Attaro, 2013). But much of the work regarding the education of students with disabilities and ELLs has centered on the premise that curricula and instruction for these students must be adjusted to fit their particular needs (Connor & Ferri, 2007; Tung, 2013). The divergence between these two perspectives is at the center of a considerable dilemma for schools and teachers.


Arguably, the central point of IDEA, the principal federal law that governs special education, is that in order for students with disabilities to receive the free and appropriate public education they are legally entitled to, their public school education must be tailored to meet their unique needs. In effect, their educational planners have to create bridges between the students’ particular learning situation and the vision we have of what students are ultimately to learn in school. While this logic seems fairly straightforward, controversies appear when it comes to actually defining what it is that all students are to learn and especially what it means for children with a disability, or ELLs for that matter, to have programming especially tailored to them. In order to determine what we need to do to make a student’s education appropriate given his or her particular learning needs, we first have to decide what it is that all students are to learn and why. In other words, defining the basic goals for anyone’s free and appropriate public education becomes the overriding concern.

In the context of special education, this is especially important during the development of a student’s individualized education plan (IEP), a legally binding document collaboratively developed by a multidisciplinary team of educators and a student’s guardians that spells out the particular needs, objectives, and appropriate educational services for a child with a diagnosed disability. The IEP was initially designed as a tool for (a) ensuring the appropriate placement of students with disabilities in the least restrictive environment, (b) encouraging parent participation and agency, and (c) ensuring that schools could be held accountable for providing a child with appropriate services. Over time, the IEP has also served as a vehicle for planning individualized instruction (Goodman & Bond, 1993). This latter function has been further enhanced in more recent versions of the federal law that mandate the participation of classroom teachers in designing and implementing the IEP (Kreutzer, 2004). The role and design of a student’s IEP is critical given the heterogeneity in learning characteristics of the special education population, and the fact that students with disabilities have greater challenges graduating from high school, getting into college, and entering the workforce (Eckes & Swando, 2009; McDonnell, McLaughlin, & Morrison, 1997). IEPs can give students who otherwise might suffer academically a way to succeed.


For ELLs, however, identification and supervision of appropriate educational help is less clearly codified. Here, the current operational definition by the American Institutes for Research is used, which terms as ELL anyone who has a native language other than English and would benefit from language support to improve academic performance in English because of difficulties with the language (Bardack, 2010). ELLs are currently the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population, with two thirds coming from low-income families and whose academic performance is far below that of the rest of the population (Van Roekel, 2010). While federal law mandates that districts identify their ELL students, provide language support services, and test their English proficiency on an annual basis, specifics in terms of programmatic and curricular requirements are left up to the states, which in turn use a great variety of approaches (Hamayan & Freeman, 2006). Most states continue to lack a clear vision for the education of ELLs that would build on students’ cultural and linguistic assets, and instead view the first language essentially as an obstacle to overcome in the process of acquiring English (Tung, 2013).



The acknowledgement that there are subpopulations of students for whom instructional content has to be adjusted because of differences in their learning needs significantly conflicts with universal standards. When NCLB was signed into law in 2001, one of its central purposes was to highlight, and force schools to address, achievement gaps attributed to a longstanding failure to cater to the needs of historically marginalized groups, including ethnic and racial minorities, economically disadvantaged populations, ELLs, and students with disabilities (Hall, Wiener, & Carey, 2003). While this concern was not new, NCLB was the first federal law to compel each state to define what all students were expected to learn through the design of universal standards that described learning outcomes (Yell, Katsiyannas, & Shiner, 2006). By clearly establishing what students were to know as a result of their public education, it was argued, schools would have to confront what was wrong when certain students did not in fact meet these universal standards (Hall et al., 2003).  

More recently, the full or partial adoption of the Common Core Standards by 46 states and the District of Columbia demonstrates an ever-broadening attempt to universalize learning outcomes. Under the original mandates of NCLB, states had discretion in their standard-setting process. By contrast, the increasing adoption of Common Core shows a movement toward nationalized standards. Not every state is on board, and there are many that are fighting Common Core. Notably, critics caution against its free-market approach to systemic reform—whereby schools are expected to improve through open competition, the surviving schools being those that best adapt to standards and testing demands—that does little to address persistent underlying inequities (Owens, 2015; Smith & Teasley, 2014).    

As universal standards become increasingly central to educational programming and daily instruction, they also logically come to serve as a starting point in the process of IEP goal-writing. Indeed, the ultimate aim has largely become that special education students will, at a pace and with scaffolds appropriate for their individual situations, eventually meet the standards or come as close to meeting them as seems feasible given the specifics of their disability (Voltz & Fore, 2008). While the particulars of standards continue to be controversial, they have effectively become the U.S. version of a shared curriculum and the basis for planning special education services.


Some of these issues regarding the establishment of universal standards have been further exacerbated by the extreme emphasis that is placed on state-level standardized testing. As a consequence of testing-based adequate yearly progress (AYP) requirements, teachers and administrators who worry about being judged ineffective are not simply concerned with whether their students are meeting or progressing toward the standards, but, perhaps more urgently for them, with ensuring students receive a satisfactory score on the test that was designed to measure the attainment of these standards. Put simply, the questions on the high-stakes standardized tests have become the shared curriculum.

The logic of high-stakes testing, though, is powerful if one accepts the proposition embedded in NCLB that a central problem in U.S. public education has been that we weren’t sure what we were to teach, what anyone was actually learning, and what areas we needed to address so students who typically struggled could be more effectively helped (Conley, 2014; Linn, 2003; Voltz & Fore, 2006). It can indeed be argued that NCLB’s requirement that all students in certain grades be tested, and their scores disaggregated by subgroups, means that lower-achieving student populations can no longer be ignored (Hardman & Dawson, 2008). Furthermore, testing pressures may push schools to develop local curricula that in fact address the standards. It is also argued that testing allows schools to know what their students can and can’t do and make instructional changes accordingly, thus helping schools continuously improve (Dorn, 2010; Shepard, 2011; Sindelear, 2006).  

However, there is also considerable evidence that high-stakes test scores are more closely connected to students’ background than direct consequences of instruction (Koretz, 2008; Martin 2012). Nichols and Berliner (2007) also point to the inherent problem of using test-related pressures as a vehicle for motivating educators and students into being successful. As the authors remark, “The need to test had replaced the need to care, a corruption of the traditional role of teachers” (Nichols & Berliner, 2007, p. 73). Whatever their supposed purpose, high-stakes tests appear to develop a life of their own that no longer connects with the original equity-related aims of implementing universal standards. There is evidence of “educational triage” whereby schools identify and concentrate their resources on so-called “bubble students,” whose test scores are close to the proficiency threshold and are therefore most likely to play a decisive role in a school’s AYP results (Booher-Jennings, 2005; Perlstein, 2007). Unlikely to be labeled bubble students, most students with disabilities and ELLs are among those most at risk of being simply given up on in a context where schools are essentially asked to invest in higher test scores (Abedi, 2009; Menken, 2008).           

As a rule, both students with disabilities and ELLs struggle more with receiving satisfactory test scores than do their peers (Abedi, 2009). In the case of students with special needs, it is common that schools fail to make AYP because of the low aggregate results of their special education subgroup (Cole, 2006). There is evidence that one of the main reasons for the low achievement of students with disabilities on grade-normed high-stakes tests is that their defining characteristics as a subgroup involve limitations on the ability to learn (Eckes & Swando, 2009). In fact, the requirement by NCLB that all students be successful on the same test runs counter to IDEA’s demand that what students are expected to achieve be individualized on the basis of their particular needs (Albritten, Mainzer, & Ziegler, 2004). Similarly, ELLs receive significantly lower scores than do their non-ELL peers (Abedi, 2009; Menken, 2008; Wright, 2006). NCLB’s requirement that ELLs who have been attending U.S. schools for one year, regardless of their English proficiency level, be administered the same assessments as native speakers of English effectively turns the high-stakes tests into a language assessment rather than a test of academic achievement (Menken, 2008, 2009).  

When it comes specifically to students with disabilities, Ysseldyke et al. (2004) point to both positive and negative consequences of high-stakes testing. There is evidence that requiring special education students to be a part of the test-based accountability system has increased the attention devoted to students with disabilities (Hardman & Dawson, 2008). Thurlow (2002) explains that:

Students with disabilities have suffered by being excluded from higher expectations in that their education has been watered down when it need not have been, and as a result, their academic performance has been depressed simply because so little has been expected of them. (p. 196)

By pressuring schools to focus on the results of their special education students’ high-stakes tests, it is argued, the system is also pressuring schools to prepare them academically in ways that had often been lacking.

However, Ysseldyke et al. (2004) also find that it has led to a narrowing of the curriculum and the development of de facto tracks. Here students are placed into remedial tracks after receiving low scores on the high-stakes test. Because of the lack of clear correlation between learning and test performance, this practice means that students often end up in classes where they learn less than they are capable of and less than they would in other classes (Ysseldyke, 2004). It is also noted that for some students with disabilities, the kind of instructional content that is most necessary, such as social skills or orientation and mobility, is not part of the general education curriculum and is not assessed on high-stakes tests (Voltz & Fore, 2006). The idea that a narrow set of standards will in fact meet the very broad needs of students with disabilities seems unrealistic (Thurlow, 2002).    


As it is, the pressures of the test-based accountability system have inevitably led to the development of standards-based IEPs, wherein standards are used as a basis for the development of supposedly student-centered individualized plans rather than the developmental context and individual strengths and needs of the students in their own right. Indeed, IDEA states that the ultimate purpose of special education is to “ensure access of the child to the general curriculum, so that he or she can meet the educational standards within the jurisdiction of the public agency that apply to all children” (Public Law 105–117, 300.2.6(b)(3)(ii)). A key issue here is that IDEA does not, in fact, define what constitutes the general education curriculum and what it means to have access to it. Given, however, that standards have indeed become the curricular basis in general education according to NCLB, developing standards-based IEPs simply means adhering to the combination of both federal laws (Ahearn, 2006). It can be argued that in the current public school context, complying with IDEA essentially means preparing students for high-stakes standardized tests, even though this may run counter to the original spirit of the law and its emphasis on tailoring services to the individual based on what he or she, specifically, most needs to learn.

Yet the whole premise of IDEA is that for a student with disabilities to be successful, educational goals and interventions have to be tailor-made to address the very specific, unique needs and strengths of the particular student. In addition to establishing what students are supposed to learn, at issue is also the fact that standards follow a particular grade-based timetable, mandating the rate at which students, including most students with disabilities, are to learn a given academic content. As Voltz and Fore (2006) point out, “Rigid standardization in the curriculum—a possible byproduct of the accountability system—may conflict with the individualized approach that informs so much of special education” (p. 333). Thus, while universal standards and high-stakes assessments have certainly meant a dramatic shift in how special education services are considered and designed, it is unclear whether special education also stops fulfilling its individualizing purpose in the process.

The current pressures associated with high-stakes testing are restricting educators’ abilities to fully individualize educational opportunities for students with disabilities. It is a curious situation that the federal legislation promises individualized educational experiences for students with disabilities while at the same time demanding uniformity, standardization, and monolithic instructional processes.



What follows is an examination of how a specific school with low test scores evolved in response to pressures to make AYP. Specifically, the focus is on how school leaders essentially deviated from the original design of the school, especially regarding the education of students with disabilities and ELLs, as increasing scores on the high-stakes test became the single school priority.

The Bilingual Community Academy (ABC for its initials in Spanish) was a small bilingual charter middle school in Washington, District of Columbia, with a student population that was economically challenged and included a large number of minority students and ELLs, a combination of demographic features that tend to be associated with low test scores regardless of the quality of instruction (Marchant, Paulson, & Shunk, 2006). The school was created as a middle school option for graduates from a number of nearby public bilingual schools, and was designed to (a) help native Spanish speakers develop linguistic and academic proficiencies in both languages, (b) provide native English speakers from economically challenged backgrounds bilingual enrichment opportunities typically reserved for more affluent populations, and (c) focus on the whole child with both an explicitly nurturing and supportive school culture and an academic emphasis on meaning-making, project work, and interdisciplinary study. The school was chronically under-enrolled and struggled financially, closing just four years after opening. Due to pressures associated with repeated failure to make AYP, much of the school’s efforts, including those aimed at students with disabilities and English language learners, were increasingly focused on preparing students for the state test.


In keeping with the central tenets of dual immersion bilingual education programs (Lindholm-Leary, 2001), English was designed to be the language of instruction in half of the core academic subjects (in this case language arts and science), and Spanish in the other half (math and social studies). Each year the school population was almost evenly split between students who were English dominant and students who were Spanish dominant. In each language, therefore, student proficiency levels ranged from not proficient, to orally proficient but not functionally literate, to orally fluent and literate according to the bilingual rating categories used by ABC. The logic of dual bilingual immersion is that students strengthen their linguistic, literacy-related, and academic skills in their dominant language while learning and transferring these skills to an emergent second language through full social, cultural, and academic immersion supplemented with explicit instruction (Lindholm-Leary, 2001).

Both the logic of the dual immersion program and the school’s overall focus on the whole child led to an emphasis on inclusion and cross-curricular learning. The reliance on immersion as a vehicle for language learning and cultural exchange implies that all students receive a maximum of opportunities to interact with one another, and therefore a course design that favors inclusion over pull-out or tracking models in terms of both general and special education. Special education and English as a second language services were thus designed to be provided exclusively in the general education classroom setting without proficiency-based tracking. Curricula in language arts and social studies, which were taught in English and Spanish, respectively, were meant to be connected, allowing for cross-linguistic transfer of concepts and skills. In order to make the material accessible to all students given the range of language proficiency and literacy levels, curricula were planned to be based on themes that were then explored through individualized student projects, thus explicitly establishing flexibility in terms of the literacy demands of content learning and student reflection.  

This inclusive program that was designed to be common to all students was supplemented by daily mixed-grade language development classes in both English and Spanish (ELD and SLD, respectively). These were leveled according to students’ language and literacy proficiencies as determined by a series of diagnostic assessments, ranging from basic English and Spanish as a second language to higher-level literature, and focusing on a continuum of literacy skills. The idea was that these would be additional supports that would allow for full inclusion in the core academic content classes. The school adopted a full inclusion special education program, with designated learning specialists providing assistance and IEP-related services in the core classes. English as a second language services were also provided through inclusion, with additional strengthening of academic skills in those classes that were taught in Spanish and in an English Language Development section that was reserved for students who were classified as non-English proficient (NEP) and low-level limited English proficient (LEP).

Throughout its existence, the school’s student body was almost exclusively low income, mostly from low-performing public schools, and almost evenly made up of Latino and Black students. According to a New York Times determination of school diversity whereby the ethnic and racial diversity of a school’s population is rated, ABC was ranked as the sixth most diverse of 50 District of Columbia schools in 2006, with most schools having a much larger majority of students belonging to a single racial or ethnic group (New York Times, January 2, 2012). Depending on the year, special education students made up between 21.3% and 29.5% of the total population. The school served grades 6–8 (grades 6 and 7 only during the first year), but enrolled new students in all grades every year. ABC did not have a feeder school and was never fully established as a true three-year program, with students instead enrolling and leaving on a regular and often unpredictable basis. Every year its AYP report announced low test scores in both reading and math. ABC never got close to earning AYP, making achieving adequate test scores an increasingly overriding priority for the school. Table 1 describes the student population over the first three years of the school’s existence (2005–2008).

Table 1. ABC Student Population


Year 1

Year 2

Year 3

Grades served

6, 7

6, 7, 8

6, 7, 8

Total students




Black students




Latino students




Students qualifying for free and reduced lunch




Special education students




Non-English proficient (NEP) students (lowest level on the state-mandated language proficiency test ACCESS for ELLs)




Limited English proficient (LEP) students (Levels 2–4 on the ACCESS for ELLs)




Total combined NEP/LEP and special education students




I reviewed a variety of documents to understand how AYP pressures impacted academic programming and instruction. First, I examined two years’ worth of state-level test scores in math and reading overall and disaggregated by student subgroups (special education and second language learners). I also looked at the School Improvement Plans authored by administrators and teachers of the school that emanated from two consecutive years of not making AYP to get a sense of what adjustments the school would have to make. Third, I observed programmatic changes made by the school to address the testing needs of all students in general and of special education students and English language learners in particular. Lastly, I evaluated the IEP goals of seventh-grade students that were constructed in the context of programmatic responses to the school’s failure to make AYP.


The D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System (DCCAS), the high-stakes test that is used to assess at least 95% of students in grades 3–8 and 10 in reading and math, was given in all District of Columbia public schools and charter schools every spring. The Reading section of the DCCAS specifically assessed student performance in the areas of Vocabulary, Literary Text, and Informational Text. The Math portion was comprised of Number Sense and Operations; Patterns, Relations and Algebra; Geometry; Measurement; and Data Analysis, Statistics and Probability.  Using predetermined single-score cut-off points, results were determined as Below Basic, Basic, Proficient, and Advanced. Schools were then issued a one-page “AYP Report” that was publicized in the local media. It indicated the percentages of students who were assessed and who scored Proficient or above. These were given for the total student population and for subgroups based on ethnicity, special education classification, and ELL classification, and for students who were considered to be economically disadvantaged. Standard scores, analyses of the student population, and measures of statistical validity were not given. The AYP Report then concluded whether the school reached the statewide proficiency target for each student category.

ABC failed to make AYP by a large margin every year in both reading and math due to a very low percentage of students who scored Proficient on the DCCAS. While this was true for all reported subcategories, it was especially the case for special education students and ELLs (see Table 2). Given the large portion of the student population that both of these groups represented (combining for a total of 81.3%, 65.9%, and 67% of all students in each of the three years, respectively), their failure on the DCCAS impacted ABC’s AYP prospects both in terms of subgroup scores and in terms of results for the total population. Preparing them for the test therefore had to become a central priority for the school and, perhaps inevitably, oriented the focus of instruction in special education and English as a second language.   

Table 2. DCCAS Results

School Year

% Proficient

Total Popula-tion: Reading

% Proficient

Special Educa-tion

% Proficient


% Proficient Required to make AYP: Reading

% Proficient

Total Population: Math

% Proficient

Special Educa-tion

% Proficient


% Proficient Required to make AYP: Math

Year 1









Year 2









It is worth noting patterns in the DCCAS results for the school as a whole, as this logically connected with the whole-school response. As shown in Tables 3 and 4, both math and reading were areas of generalized weakness both years. While almost all skill areas were weaknesses for special education students, results for English language learners were more mixed.

Table 3. Areas Below Proficiency: Reading (Students Below Proficiency/Total Students)


Special Education Students

English Language Learners

School Year


Informational Text

Literary Text


Informational Text

Literary Text

Year 1







Year 2







Table 4. Areas Below Proficiency: Math (Students Below Proficiency/Total Students)


Special Education Students

English Language Learners

School Year

Number Sense & Probability

Patterns, Relations &




Data Analysis, Statistics & Probability

Number Sense & Probability

Patterns, Relations &




Data Analysis, Statistics & Probability

Year 1











Year 2











In Year 1, there was a marked polarization of scores in Reading for the school as a whole, particularly in the area of Vocabulary. Informational Text and Literary Text were areas of weakness for most students. The staff determined they would emphasize vocabulary and textual analysis, with a focus on explicit vocabulary instruction and practice in using context clues to understand unfamiliar words. In Math, all areas except Number Sense and Operations and Geometry were areas of generalized need, leading the school to identify Data Analysis, Statistics and Probability to be addressed in particular, along with problem solving in all areas.  

In Year 2, there were again weaknesses in all three Reading areas, but especially in Informational Text. The staff decided to focus on comprehension with an emphasis on using context clues to understand unfamiliar words, identifying and distinguishing between the main idea and supporting details, and finding and connecting information in a text. In Math, scores were again low overall, but with far greater polarization among students, especially in the areas of Geometry, Measurement, and Data Analysis, Statistics and Probability, with notable deficits in basic, prerequisite skills. Students generally did far worse in Geometry than they did the previous year. Staff determined that basic skills had to be emphasized by the school in all areas, with a particular focus on comparing, calculating, and converting fractions, whole numbers, and percent; determining place value of numbers; understanding and using the inverse relationships between operations; as well as basic concepts related to geometry and measurement including the metric and U.S. customary systems and length and area.  

The overall trend over these two years highlighted significant academic deficits. As a result, school-level programming shifted to lower-order basic skills at the expense of activities that might encourage higher-level processing, thinking, and inquiry.


Reading instruction changed as a result of these low scores. Students were increasingly tracked according to their test-related needs, with ELLs and students with disabilities mostly in the lower tracks. Because of the great polarization of scores in Reading on the DCCAS in Year 1, especially in the area of Vocabulary, clear distinctions were made during Year 2 among the Language Development classes between remedial (Levels 1, 2, and 3) and enrichment (Levels 4 and 5). The Level 2 class, the lowest level for students who were proficient in English and the most obviously remedial in terms of its instruction, was predominantly populated with special education students, who accounted for 73.7% of the total. In Level 2 special education students constituted 39.5% of the total. Level 1 was exclusively for students classified as LEP, including 21% who were in special education. There were no students with disabilities in the two highest ELD levels. This meant, essentially, that students with disabilities and LEP students were given remedial reading instruction to prepare for the test.   

Furthermore, explicit vocabulary instruction was instituted in all classes, with an emphasis on word walls, regular quizzes on synonyms and antonyms, and an “ABC 500” school-wide vocabulary list specifically focused on the types of words students were likely to encounter in the readings and questions on the DCCAS. Students were also assigned weekly “Drop Everything and Read” and “Drop Everything and Write” periods, when the whole school would be either reading or writing. Through these, it was hoped, students would increase their reading fluency and speed, further build their vocabulary, and practice using the grammar and words they had been learning.  

After persistently low test scores in Year 2, this focus on remediation and work on lower-level reading skills was pushed even further. In all classes, more time was dedicated to reading and answering test-like questions about the texts and less on writing. Reading-related work was further differentiated within English language arts and social studies classes. Students were placed into book groups, where they would read a common book, fill out reports, and discuss what they read through the use of guided questions. Groups, along with the specific books they were assigned and the kinds of questions they were to answer, were differentiated according to their English Language Development level. This meant that, once again, special education students and students with LEP were placed in the groups with the simplest readings and questions. Questions on the book forms and guiding questions for discussion were clearly geared toward test preparation, focusing on identifying specific information in a text. In the higher-level groups, questions were more open-ended and addressed themes and argumentation in a text.  

Classes continued emphasizing explicit vocabulary instruction, and “Drop Everything and Read” and “Drop Everything and Write” continued as well. Language Development classes were now more explicitly connected to test preparation. Indeed, all students in the school were now administered a monthly DCCAS practice test that served as a formative assessment for their Language Development classes. For each student, the school created a spreadsheet that identified, based on results on the practice tests, what skill areas he or she needed to work on.    



Math instruction was also modified in response to the low test scores as a result of the growing pressures to make AYP. At the onset, curriculum and instruction had been designed to promote real-life applications and connections of those skills and concepts identified in the state-level standards. Conclusions from the low DCCAS scores, however, led to a reorientation.  Above all, the widespread deficit in prerequisite elementary school skills and problem solving in general were now identified as overarching issues to be addressed. The school therefore determined that classroom instruction needed to be more differentiated, so that grade-level concepts could be worked on through problem solving at various skill levels. Thus, students were given worksheets at various math proficiency levels, and a learning station structure was introduced to allow students to focus on those skills they most struggled with. Inevitably, most special education students were given worksheets at the lowest proficiency levels and worked in learning stations that focused on the most elementary math skills. Thus, for example, while more advanced sixth-grade students were given multiplication practice involving four-digit numbers and decimals for basic practice, the special education students were asked to solve multiplications with one-digit numbers. Whereas some students were asked to solve intricate word problems, one of the questions on a worksheet for special education students asked them to calculate the difference between Amina’s 12 apples and Charles’s five. Weekly Math Study Hall was also introduced for students who were especially struggling—whose test scores had been especially low—including most of the school’s students with disabilities. The main purpose of Math Study Hall was to reteach and reinforce the content that had been taught in class. Finally, the school instituted an after-school math club, which students were free to join for enrichment activities. This, as it turned out, only attracted a few students who had done rather well on the DCCAS.

After the subsequent DCCAS scores were again very low in Math, additional measures were put in place to prepare yet more explicitly for the test. Math Study Hall was expanded to involve all students and followed a more prescriptive curriculum that was aligned directly with the DCCAS and was not connected with the regular math curriculum. In Math Study Hall, students worked through a sequence of basic elementary school skills that were viewed as fundamental building blocks necessary to do well on the DCCAS. Students advanced through the sequence at their own pace, with students with disabilities generally working on the lower end of the spectrum. Given the school’s general regression in the area of geometry, geometry and measurement became central to the arts curriculum of the school, in the hope that art class could serve as an additional vehicle for test preparation in math. Finally, math tutoring was mandated by law because of the school’s repeated failure to make AYP, and was expanded to meet a larger number of students on three different levels. Students who had done well on the DCCAS were given the opportunity to receive additional instruction in applied mathematical problem solving. Students who were “on the cusp” of scoring Proficient on the DCCAS were given additional computer-assisted test practice. Finally, those students who had received especially low scores on the DCCAS, including all of the special education students, were invited to an after-school remedial math program that focused mostly on elementary school skills. While some of the more advanced students were thus given a number of opportunities to focus on higher-order math problem-solving skills, the main curricular orientation for special education students was toward basic skills, in the hope that these would help them on the DCCAS. Overall, it was evident that pressures to pass the test significantly changed how teachers taught and the way the curriculum was organized and delivered.


The academic shifts that emphasized basic skills also influenced how the school planned its services for special education students. For example, my review of two IEPs from Year 3 seemed to indicate that individual student goals were adjusted to more closely follow the school’s learning priorities.

In the area of reading, each of the two students had three IEP goals that mirrored school-wide goals in response to DCCAS scores, with an emphasis on using context clues to understand unfamiliar words, identifying main ideas and supporting details, and finding and connecting information in a text. While both students had some additional goals as well, these were the three they had in common. In math, both students shared one goal that was also school-wide (comparing, calculating, and converting fractions, whole numbers, and percent). While for one of the two this was the only math goal, the other student had, among others, four IEP goals that were also school-wide.

This is especially noteworthy given the general assumption that IEPs are to be written with a particular student’s needs in mind rather than larger programmatic considerations (Voltz & Fore, 2006). It is difficult to determine with certainty what particular areas would have been emphasized for each student if test results had not been a consideration—and, especially, whether certain skills would have been emphasized in any case as part of the general development of math skills and not just as tied to the current accountability system. Nonetheless, it is to be noted that each of the core reading goals that had been identified for the school as a whole are rendered as individual goals in these two IEPs. While there is a bit more of a divergence in math, some of the individual goals reflect school-wide goals as well.

While the IEP goals of these students were not limited to what the school identified as areas of need based on test scores, the degree of overlap makes it likely that test-oriented priorities served as a basic blueprint that was then completed based on the individual students. While that of course does not mean that these areas should not legitimately be addressed in the education of these two students, it does, arguably, point to the possible impact of test pressures as a driver of individualized instructional planning for students with disabilities, thus reaffirming the notion of high-stakes test preparation as the de facto general education curriculum special education students are to be given access to.


Anecdotal data from this one school underscores a very troubling effect emanating from the pressures of high-stakes testing and AYP under NCLB. I saw a noticeable instructional shift that was the direct result of students’ chronic underperformance on standardized tests. The pressure on teachers to be sure students did better lead to a host of programmatic and instructional shifts tailored directly to the test. The effects were especially pronounced for ELL and special education students.

Of particular concern was the dramatic shift away from the school’s initial goals over a very short period of time. The original design of the school was deliberately based on a mission of inclusiveness and the principles of two-way bilingual education (where language learners acquire skills by interacting with native speakers). However, the test-based pressures fundamentally took this school off course. Rather than inclusivity, the school increasingly subdivided its instruction and its student body. Not only did this undermine the inclusive basis for instruction that had been part of the identity and purpose of the school, but it also led to a system of de facto tracking, with students with disabilities and beginning ELLs firmly placed at the very bottom.  Thus while some students engaged in a variety of enrichment activities, special education students and ELLs received instruction that was increasingly remedial. Essentially, their instructional planning became focused not on what they might further build with the content and skills they had already acquired, but on what specific curricular points on a list of assessment items they were lacking and had to catch up on.  

One can argue that this focus on remedial instruction was in fact a warranted attempt to provide students with the greatest challenges in those academic skills they most needed. In this sense, the accountability system that ultimately altered how ABC approached its instructional design succeeded in doing exactly what it was set up to accomplish. One can further argue, however, that this points precisely to some of the shortcomings of high-stakes assessments as drivers of curricular and instructional decision-making. Predetermined learning outcomes, due to their very prescriptiveness and specificity, encourage instruction to focus in a way that is bound to be narrow. Instead of aiming to explore literature in the richest way possible for all students, for instance, the need for higher assessment scores drove the special education planners of ABC to hone in on a closely delineated set of reading comprehension skills and strategies. The point of math instruction was not to make connections among abstract systems and the puzzles of the daily world, but to identify the correct answer related to isolated subskills and discrete concepts. Increasingly, then, the pressures of high-stakes testing drove ABC to emphasize the education of students with special needs and ELLs in ways that were appropriately deliberate and sustained, yet also narrow and disconnected from the greater purposes of academic learning.



These findings suggest a number of implications—not only for curriculum planners, school administrators and teachers, but also for educational researchers and policymakers—regarding the impact of high-stakes testing on the education of students with disabilities and ELLs, and on the schools that serve them. A number of significant concerns need to be addressed on the levels of instruction, research, and policy.

For one, the findings imply a troubling impact of high-stakes testing on what students with disabilities and ELLs are being taught. There is a danger that, as was the case at ABC, the instruction provided to these students becomes increasingly steered by the need to master items on a test that was not designed for them and appears to have never been appropriate for them to begin with. Furthermore, it appears that IEP goals that are supposed to be individualized may become more uniform and narrow, a vehicle for standardized test preparation that does not take individual factors into account.  

Second, the urgency of focusing on high-stakes testing to guide instruction led in the case of ABC to increased tracking. Indeed, determining the instructional needs of students based on test results may lead to a polarization between basic skill work and instruction in more cognitively advanced competencies. Almost inevitably, students with disabilities and ELLs who are also underperforming are steered toward a focus on basic skills to the detriment of higher-order skills. This in turn implies that they are taught an intellectually inferior and less rigorous curriculum, and are therefore given an inferior preparation for the future.

Third, the findings have implications for how high-stakes testing can change, and very possibly impoverish, the educational vision and coherence of a school. Once a school is viewed as doing poorly on the test, it is compelled to make test preparation its programmatic and instructional priority, regardless of its design or the ambitions of its stakeholders. Ultimately, once they appear, pressures to raise scores on a high-stakes test are likely to take over the life and identity of a school.  

In response, it is urged that curricular and instructional decisions be made independently of high-stakes tests and their pressures in ways that take into consideration the context and needs of the particular population that is being served. While universal standards may have been a reasonable step toward developing a common vision for what students are to learn and schools are to teach, the focus on high-stakes testing has effectively turned exam questions into the academic content that counts and therefore, by default, into an imposed, shared curriculum that is narrow and inappropriate for many ELLs and students with disabilities. It is therefore suggested that local educators have greater freedom in designing or deciding on the curriculum and instruction to implement with their particular student populations. While the accountability goals of high-stakes testing and AYP are important and certainly must continue to be addressed, accountability mechanisms should not replace local educational decision-making—which they currently do.

This also implies that the education of ELLs and students with special needs—whose educational situations are by definition varied and different from most other students—should be indeed truly individualized. As it is, this individualization is significantly undermined by the focus on high-stakes tests, creating a standardized outcome-based system wherein a regard for difference in educational need is replaced with a focus on difference in apparent proficiency. Differentiation to target individual need is consequently replaced by tracking and remediation to target deficiencies in performance level. It is urged that accountability pressures be rethought so they no longer limit schools’ emphasis on teaching students based on their particular individual situations. The accompanying implication is that we consider how much freedom we indeed want to give schools that have a particular vision for their specific population. While schools and teachers have to be accountable, one has to wonder why we bother allowing schools to design their own curricula if we then impose specific, narrow curricular requirements when—surprise, surprise—their students do not do well on standardized tests that were not designed for them in the first place.  


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 118 Number 14, 2016, p. 1-24
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21539, Date Accessed: 5/24/2022 5:48:29 PM

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About the Author
  • Peter Martin
    Ithaca College
    E-mail Author
    PETER CLYDE MARTIN is an Associate Professor of Education at Ithaca College. Research interests include vision-based schooling, inclusive education, collaboration, educational equity, and serving the needs of English language learners considered at risk of educational failure. Recent publications include “Contradictory Reforms: When NCLB Undermines Charter School Innovation,” in Current Issues in Education, and “Stumped by Student Needs: Factors in Establishing Effective Teacher Collaboration,” in the Electronic Journal for Inclusive Education.
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