The Test to California’s Tests?

The Test to California’s Tests?

The U.S. Department of Education first established the modified academic achievement standards to address a certain group of students who had been struggling under the previous school accountability scheme.[i]  That scheme had allowed schools to develop two different type of standards and assessments: general standards for the bulk of the student population and alternate standards for “students with the most significant cognitive disabilities[.]”  This scheme failed to address a third group of students “whose disability has precluded them from achieving grade-level proficiency and whose progress is such that they will not reach grade-level achievement standards in the same time frame as other students.”  Neither the general nor alternate standards provided an accurate assessment of what this group of students knew and could do.  A grade-level assessment was too difficult, while an alternate assessment was too easy; neither provided teachers nor parents information to help the students reach grade-level achievement.  The modified standards were thus designed to provide these students an appropriately challenging assessment so they could work toward grade-level achievement.

Since the standards have been established, however, there has been limited research into their efficacy and effects on student performance and school accountability.  Only three states to date having implemented assessments based on the modified standards, and California only just introduced the California Modified Assessments (CMAs) as part of its Student Testing and Reporting (STAR) program tests in 2008.  Consequently, there has been little opportunity to grasp what advantages and disadvantages the CMAs have to offer.

On the one hand, there are suggestions that the CMAs have been used by both individual schools and the state as a whole to inflate Academic Performance Index (“API”) scores.  This was done simply by taking students who had been performing poorly on the California Standards Tests (CSTs) and assessing them instead under the CMAs.  The CMAs were phased in over 3 grade spans between 2008 and 2010, starting with about 40,000 students with disabilities (SWDs) in grades 3-5 taking the assessment in 2008 and gradually increasing to almost 145,000 SWDs in grades 3-11 taking the assessment in 2010[ii]  This year, in 2013, more than 220,000 SWDs were administered the CMAs rather than the CSTs, and in fact more CMAs than CSTs are now administered to SWDs.[iii]  Because any SWD who scored below basic or far below basic on a CST are eligible to take a CMA instead,[iv] schools can systematically remove students who do not attain a proficient score on the CST to artificially inflate CST gains and, consequently, the schools’ APIs.  Even a superficial examination of statewide CST data reveals that schools have indeed done so; reported cumulative gains on CST results include “an ‘inflation’ factor of 2.65 percentage points or an artificial inflation of 27 percent over the past 6 years, due to the introduction of the CMAs[.]”

On the other hand, the modified standards are a valuable tool in addressing the needs of a certain population of students: those who struggle to achieve grade-level standards, but who do not readily classify as having “the most significant cognitive disabilities.”  The CMAs unquestionably provide more meaningful individual student information as well as increased accessibility to standardized exams for many SWDs.  Although the modified standards have proven susceptible to misuse, the rationale for their creation remains as relevant as ever.

[i] Title I—Improving the Academic Achievement of the Disadvantaged; Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)—Assistance to States for the Education of Children With Disabilities, 72 Fed. Reg. 17,748, 17,754 (Apr. 9, 2007) (to be codified at 34 C.F.R. pt. 200, 300) (hereinafter “Modified Standards 1”).

[ii] Doug J. McRae, California’s API Growth Data: Are Trend Data Inflated 2, Silicon Valley Ed. Found. (Sept. 13, 2010), (hereinafter “API Growth Data 2010”).

[iii] Doug J. McRae, Overview of 2013 California Standards Tests Results 2, EdSource (Aug. 8, 2013), (hereinafter “CST Overview 2013”).

[iv] CMA Participation Criteria and Definition of Terms, Cal. Dep’t of Educ. (Apr. 9, 2013),

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