Milestones exceeded on project to create innovative assessment of students with disabilities

Progress has been made one year into a five-year grant awarded in 2010 to the University of Kansas Center for Educational Testing and Evaluation (CETE) by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs. The $22 million grant — the largest in KU history — was awarded to fund development and evaluation of a new generation of alternate assessments for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities — the Dynamic Learning Maps Alternate Assessment System (DLM). Thirteen states are participating in the project: Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin.

Set for large-scale use during the 2014–2015 school year, the DLM alternate assessment system will let students with significant cognitive disabilities show what they know in ways that traditional multiple-choice tests cannot and is designed to more validly measure what students with significant cognitive disabilities know and can do. The assessment system is structured around a learning map, which models many potential pathways students may take on their path to gaining academic content. The map is populated by a connected network of thousands of sequenced learning targets, or skills, that students need to learn by the end of high school. It is dynamic because it selects test items and tasks for a student based on that student’s previous responses. It is a connected network because skills build upon other skills, and students need to demonstrate prerequisite knowledge and ability before advancing from one skill to another.

CETE is ahead of schedule, having developed seven grade levels of the learning map in the first year of the grant period. As part of the map’s development, educators from across the country examined the map during a two-day content review in September and gave it overwhelming praise.

“It [the learning map] is so intricate because you can see the pathways and how some individual might go one way, and another individual might go another way,” said Jeff Crawford, an educator from Washington. “The learning map is unbelievable. It’s very complex and very detailed.”

“The learning map itself is very helpful for teachers in learning alternative routes for students to end up at the same destination,” said Terri Portice of Michigan. The map will undergo two more reviews by education experts in the fields of special education and cognitive psychology in 2012 and then be validated through the extensive collection of student data in the 13 participating states.

The next stage of DLM work, development of instructionally relevant item types that go beyond traditional multiple-choice items, has already begun. Historically, tests have been designed to measure skills efficiently, but in the face of high-stakes accountability systems, many teachers have begun teaching to tests. DLM has been working with master teachers to design test items that model good instructional activities so that if teachers do teach to the test, the tests will be worth teaching to. Prototypes of these new item types are under development and will be tried out with students and presented to teachers for feedback over the next few months. 

DLM is a comprehensive assessment system grounded in research evidence and emerging theory about assessments for students with significant cognitive disabilities. It breaks new ground in universal design for assessment, learning map development, instructionally embedded assessment, and technology-based, instructionally relevant item types.

For more than 30 years, CETE has partnered with the Kansas State Department of Education to deliver a variety of assessment services under the Kansas State Assessment Program, the comprehensive assessment system Kansas schools use to determine whether a student learns the intended curriculum. CETE also offers online training resources, practice tests, and tutorials to help prepare students and educators for the Kansas assessments.

January 3, 2012