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Introduction and Overview to the Yearbook

by Sharon L. Nichols & Felicia Castro-Villarreal - 2016

Introduction to the Yearbook on Accountability Practices and Special Education Services: Impact and Implications

It has been over a decade since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and the federal mandate that states implement a high-stakes testing accountability system as the central mechanism for education reform. In that time, we have learned a lot about the intended and unintended consequences of high-stakes testing practices. When it comes to the intended consequences, we know that high-stakes testing has not increased student achievement (e.g., Nichols, Glass, & Berliner, 2006, 2012) or significantly decreased the BlackWhite achievement gap (Timar & Maxwell-Jolly, 2012). On the contrary, high-stakes testing has yielded some negative unintended consequences that have seriously compromised the spirit of a public education. For example, pressures on teachers to get their students to pass a test have led to undesirable instructional practices including a narrower curriculum, teaching to the test, exaggerated emphasis on tests to the exclusion of other educational goals, and compromised studentteacher relationships (Nichols & Berliner, 2007; Ravitch, 2010). In spite of all the negative effects of high-stakes testing, this practice is not going away any time soon. Politicians continue to embrace high-stakes testing as a panacea for school reform. It is critical that we continue to inform educators, policymakers, and citizens of the many different ways high-stakes testing impacts our studentsespecially those who are the most marginalized and most at risk.

The goal of this Yearbook is to address the ways in which high-stakes testing systems interact with special education instructional and referral practices. In the general education context and under high-stakes pressures, we know that students are treated differentially according to their academic ability. For example, we know that as the pressures to pass the test increase, teachers tend to pay more attention to their middle or low achievers (Boohrer-Jennings, 2005; Nichols & Berliner, 2007). This differential treatment conveys to students what teachers think about their academic and motivational potential, which, in many cases, only serves to undermine students sense of belonging, self-efficacy, and motivation to learn. When it comes to special education populations, these types of differential treatments are potentially even more problematic, but need to be better understood. Therefore, the theme of this volume is how high-stakes testing pressures influence special education referrals and labeling, expectations, and instructional practices. In addition, the volume examines the impact of these influences on students psychological and motivational processes and associated phenomena such as the stereotype threat, learned helplessness, and self-fulfilling prophecies.

High-stakes testing pressures and their effects on the educational experiences of special education students are of critical concern because of the increased potential for inappropriate identification, referral, and instructional practices. This consequence is especially concerning since cultural and linguistic minority students are often disproportionately represented among special education ranks and therefore at greater risk of suffering from the negative effects of high-stakes testing pressures (Valas, 1999; Ysseldyke et al., 2004). Increased stressors and inappropriate practices are doubly problematic for culturally and linguistically diverse students, who are already at risk for poor academic outcomes (Harry & Klingner, 2014; Orfield, Losen, Wald, & Swanson, 2004). In addition to altering their learning environments and the degree of support which they receive and have access to, data indicate that students who receive special education programming are more likely to drop out of school or to obtain an alternative diploma (Ysseldyke et al., 2004). Special education labeling also has a negative effect on self-esteem and academic efficacy, factors that relate to high school completion, which in turn relates to future employment and income (Valas, 1999; Ysseldyke et al., 2004). From this perspective, disproportionate representation of minorities in special education essentially maintains the achievement gap related to ethnic differences in high school graduation, college completion, employment, and earnings. The U.S. student population will continue to diversify; therefore, it seems important to continue examining referral practices and special education placement decisions in the current high-stakes testing accountability era.

The volume is organized into three main sections: (1) the impact of accountability pressures on students, teachers, and school systems; (2) manipulation and gaming the system practices; and (3) alternative assessment practices and outcomes. With this special volume, we hope to shed light on how high-stakes testing contexts impact how special education students are or are not identified, treated, and supported in school.  


In the first section of the Yearbook, our authors address issues regarding policies and practice as they relate to our special education student population. Authors in all four of these articles challenge the role of federal mandates aimed at making educational opportunities more equitable for marginalized students (special education, minorities, poor) by deconstructing the intent and implementation of federal laws such as IDEA and NCLB.

In the first article, Castro-Villarreal and Nichols lay the groundwork for the rest of the volume by providing a brief introduction and overview to the general context of special education policies and practices. They briefly describe the history of special education and present an overview of some of the broader demographic characteristics of this population. Lastly, the authors introduce some of the most pressing challenges associated with the implementation of emergent policies aimed at special education populations.

Next, Tefera and Voulgarides provide a general introduction to the history of federal mandates that have emerged as a response to the civil rights movement in education. The fight for racially integrated schools in the 1950s and beyond helped to spur the fight for free, inclusive, and open education opportunities for our special education populations. These big-p policies were aimed at making education more equitable. However, the intersection of big-p policies with little-p (local) policies has led to very unique sets of circumstances that vary widely from context to context and which present challenges to educators mandated to meet content and performance standards. Tefera and Voulgarides discussion of data from two case studies highlight these challenges, showing how educators are situated in challenging and conflicting positions. In the end, their discussion exposes how well intentioned legal mandates and procedural protections cannot assure equitable outcomes in the context of local practice.

The question of inclusion and exclusion is addressed in the next three articles. In Bacon et al., the authors address the issue of the Prioritized Curriculum (PC) class that has emerged in response to the accountability pressures mandating that schools raise their special education students achievement as measured by standardized test scores. Given the diversity of learning needs, educators in some contexts have created the PC classroom as a way to re-segregate special education students into self-contained classroom contexts under the guise of wanting to target and improve upon their current academic status. In an era when more schools are trying to educate students in more inclusive settings (per federal law), the accountability provisions of NCLB and Race to the Top have led to an unintended consequence of redistributing special education students back into self-contained classrooms under different name. Although this article could be conceivably located in our gaming section of the volume, we place it here to raise questions about how these kinds of decisions directly impact our students. Bacon et al. argue that the current standards-based reform movement that requires that all students, even students with disabilities, pass state tests at their current grade level has prompted educators to change the delivery of education in such a way that ends up hurting students, not helping them.

In the next article, Theoharis, Causton, and Tracy-Bronson highlight the challenges and opportunities that emerge when schools go through a process of transforming from an exclusionary service delivery model to an inclusive one. They begin their article by highlighting the experiences of two special education students, both of whom experience the benefits of inclusion after having experienced the low expectations of exclusion. These stories illustrate quite dramatically the positive impact of inclusion as it relates to students social, emotional, and academic growth. These stories lead into their discussion of what they have learned from their in-depth work with two elementary schools that made the intentional transition from an exclusive delivery model to an inclusive one. In outlining what they have learned from the two schools experiences with inclusive reform, they show that it is not only possible in this high-stakes testing era, but that it is a moral imperative.

In the last article in this section, Waitoller and Pazey discuss the moral imperative and social justice implications of inclusion as it relates to students with disabilities. They do this by examining how one critical incident involving a principal, a student, and his parents highlights the social justice struggles (and questions) that emanate when policy mandates compete with parental and student rights. They share the story of Ruben (a second-grade Latino student in a low-performing school) and his parents. When the parents come to school to remove Ruben from the test to take him to the doctor to get his ADHD prescription medicine refilled, they are met with resistance from the principal, who insists Ruben should stay in class to finish his test. But the parents do not want to be late for their appointment, and have only minimal time away from work to accomplish their task. The principal, playing the role of accountability enforcer and caring professional, tries several tactics with the parents to convince them to let him finish his test. These efforts silence the parents, who are in conflict with the teacher about what is best for their child. According to the principal, finishing the test so that Ruben can be successful is what is best, but according to the parents, ensuring he gets his medication is more important. This struggle highlights how the neoliberal policies of mandated testing serve to further marginalize students and their families who oppose the policies and hold different cultural norms, priorities, and expectations.

In the next section, our authors examine gaming and other unintended practices that have emerged under the weight of high-stakes testing accountability. Across these four articles, authors examine how the pressures to get students to pass tests results in unintended and sometimes negative outcomes for students with disabilities. In Article 6, Cotto looks at the special case of Connecticut and how policymakers exploited changes in the laws stipulating special education students participation in state testing to promote the laws success. Over time, the rules surrounding test participation rates of special education students changed, resulting in achievement outcomes for this group that were not comparable over time. This article sheds light on how policymakers inappropriately use data for promoting policy.

In Article 7, Saatcioglu, Skrtic, and DeLuca statistically examine the relative use of test accommodations for special education students. Their analysis reveals a pattern in which some states overuse accommodations as a way to unfairly advantage students and inflate achievement outcomes. Their analysis of statewide data considers whether states with students who possess a narrower range of skills are more likely to use accommodation strategies than states with students who demonstrate a wider range of skills. States with students who are more alike academically but yet adopt an unnecessary accumulation of accommodations are hypothesized to be engaged in gaming practices.

In Article 8, Martin examines the programmatic and instructional shifts that occurred at one high-poverty middle school in the District of Columbia area under the weight of not making adequate yearly progress (AYP) two years in a row. His analysis of math and reading achievement, as well as the schools improvement plans, demonstrates how administrators and teachers altered their approaches as a direct result of the test-based pressures. Whereas this middle school was created to provide a bilingual, inclusive educational experience to mostly low-income, Hispanic and Black students, these goals were quickly undermined by students low test scores. The pressures to get them to pass tests forced teachers to dilute the curriculum, especially as it related to the special education and ELL populations.

In the last section, we provide a set of articles that are more proactive on the topic. All three examine alternative approaches to assessment systems that might help dilute the damaging effects of the current high-stakes testing system. In Article 10, Joyce, Harrison, and Murphy discuss the various features of student learning objectives (SLOs) that emerged as an alternative way to evaluate teachers who teach in inclusive classroom settings. SLOs are operationalized as learning goals, developed by the teacher in concert with the administrator, that are used to determine student progress. One of the benefits of SLOs is that they can be used to evaluate teachers who teach classes that are not tested with standardized assessments, and they provide alternative measures of teachers work. Joyce et al. discuss how SLO implementation varies widely from state to state and describe the features of that variation as a way to further the discussion on alternative teacher evaluation systems.

In Article 11, Kingston et al. talk about the use of Dynamic Learning Maps as another alternate way to measure the achievement and growth of students with significant disabilities. Kingston et al. further the discussion on the special education population with their focus on those with significant disabilities. They explain the role of Dynamic Learning Maps as a way of constructing reasonable and sound measures for this specific population of learners. The authors, while not providing data on the maps implementation effects, provide an important contribution to the discussion of ways we might better understand achievement outcomes of students with significant disabilities.

Finally, in Article 12, Glover et al. discuss another alternative approach for evaluating the academic progress of students with disabilities in order to guide educators instructional decision-making within the context of the School System Improvement Project (SSIS). SISS is a five-year school reform initiative (20122017) that involves a partnership between 15 high-poverty charter schools and researchers from two universities (Rutgers University and Arizona State University). The SSI project aims to enhance school effectiveness through rigorous educator evaluation and teacher professional development, and the use of frequent and targeted formative assessments of student needs. This article provides an overview of the types of supports that can be successful in improving the academic progress of students with disabilities, and articulates some of the challenges of implementation.


The recent passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) suggests that the role of tests and test-based accountability in schools will change; however, it is uncertain by how much or if these changes will reverse the damaging effects of the accountability-based policies of NCLB. Although ESSA shifts the power of educational oversight back to the states, it is unclear the direction states will take. Some states may retain high-stakes testing accountability, whereas others may abandon it, and many will likely embrace a hybrid model that includes standardized testing in some form. The goal of this volume is to serve as a cautionary tale to states that wish to continue to use standardized tests as the sole measure of teacher effectiveness and student learning.


Booher-Jennings, J. (2005). Below the bubble: Educational triage and the Texas accountability system. American Educational Research Journal, 42(2), 231268.

Harry, B., & Klingner, J. (2014). Why are so many minority students in special education? Understanding race and disability in schools. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Nichols, S. L., & Berliner, D. C. (2007). Collateral damage: How high-stakes testing corrupts Americas schools. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Nichols, S. L., Glass, G. V., & Berliner, D. C. (2006). High-stakes testing and student achievement: Does accountability pressure increase student learning? Education Policy Analysis Archives, 14(1). Retrieved July 20, 2009, from http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v14n1/.

Nichols, S. L., Glass, G. V., & Berliner, D. C. (2012). High-stakes testing and student achievement: Updated analyses with NAEP data. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 20(20). Retrieved September 16, 2012, from http://epaa.asu.edu/ojs/article/view/1048.

Orfield, G., Losen, D., Wald, J., & Swanson, C. (2004). Losing our future: How minority youth are being left behind by the graduation rate crisis. Cambridge, MA: The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University.

Perlstein, L. (2007). Tested: One American school struggles to make the grade. New York, NY: Henry Holt & Co.

Ravitch, D. (2010). The death and life of the great American school system: How testing and choice are undermining education. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Timar, T. B., & Maxwell-Jolly, J. (Eds.). (2012). Narrowing the achievement gap: Perspectives and strategies for challenging times. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Valas, H. (1999). Students with learning disabilities and low-achieving students: Peer acceptance, loneliness, self-esteem, and depression. Social Psychology of Education, 3, 173192.

Ysseldyke, J., Nelson, J. R., Christenson, S., Johnson, D. R., Dennison, A., Triezenberg, H., . . . Hawes, M. (2004). What we know and need to know about the consequences of high-stakes testing for students with disabilities. Exceptional Children, 71(1), 7594.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 118 Number 14, 2016, p. 1-8
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21537, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 8:45:20 AM

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About the Author
  • Sharon Nichols
    University of Texas at San Antonio
    E-mail Author
    SHARON L. NICHOLS is an Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She is coauthor of Collateral Damage: How High-Stakes Testing Corrupts America’s Schools (with D. C. Berliner, Harvard Education Press, 2007). Her current work focuses on the impact of test-based accountability on teachers, their instructional practices, and adolescent motivation and development.
  • Felicia Castro-Villarreal
    University of Texas at San Antonio
    E-mail Author
    FELICIA CASTRO-VILLARREAL is an Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at San Antonio and a Licensed Specialist in School Psychology. Her current work focuses on teacher consultation in culturally and linguistically diverse multi-tiered systems of support and intervention programming for students with learning, behavioral, and socio-emotional needs.
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