Test scores have been rising across California. But one testing expert believes that the gains have been inflated because more students with disabilities are taking an alternative test.

If fewer students who score poorly take the test, that could increase the percentage of kids doing well, notes John Fensterwald, a blogger and former San Jose Mercury News editorial writer.

The alternative test is permitted by the U.S. Department of Education as a different way to assess special education students, Fensterwald writes. It is only given to students who do very poorly on the ordinary state test. He reports that the alternative test has gradually been introduced for more grades, expanding the number of kids who take it from 39,000 to 184,000 statewide in four years.

Doug McRae, who oversaw the design of standardized tests, estimates that if you factor in the effect of more students taking the alternative test, statewide gains are 1.6 percent, not 2.05 percent.

I decided to take a look at whether the same trend had happened in San Diego Unified, focusing on English tests. The number of students who took the alternative English test rose from 206 to 4,605 in four years. So has the percentage of students who took the test in grades where it was offered. Last year 4.9 percent of students in eligible grades took the alternative test; this year it was 5.8 percent.

This year, San Diego Unified saw its share of students meeting state standards on English tests go up by 2.5 percent compared to last year. So how might the increasing percentage of students taking the alternative test have impacted San Diego Unified scores?

Deputy Superintendent Nellie Meyer said the school district has yet to analyze it, but plans to do so. One way school districts can analyze this by calculating proficiency rates by including the students who took the alternative test and assuming they would’ve done poorly on the ordinary test.

In the past San Diego Unified found that more kids taking the alternative test caused a “blip” in one grade — but not across-the-board gains like San Diego Unified had this year.

“There may be some minor adjustment, but the number of students is relatively small,” said Ron Rode, who oversees accountability in San Diego Unified. I’ll follow up with them on that analysis.

Emily Alpert is the education reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. What should she write about next? Please contact her directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org.

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Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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