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CalSTAT Technical Assistance and Training

IDEAS that Work!California Department of Education, Special Education Division’s special project, California Services for Technical Assistance and Training (CalSTAT) is funded through a contract with the Napa County Office of Education. CalSTAT is partially funded from federal funds, State Grants #H027A080116A. Additional federal funds are provided from a federal competitively awarded State Personnel Development Grant to California (#H323A070011) provided from the U.S. Department of Education Part D of the Individuals with Disabilities Education act (IDEA). Opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the U. S. Department of Education.

The California Modified Assessment (CMA) and the California Alternate Performance Assessment (CAPA)

Assessment: Changes and Challenges

California has a rigorous and integrated system of public school accountability, a system that informs the state’s Academic Performance Index (API), its federal Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) figures, and the Program Improvement (PI) status of schools.

The API score measures the academic performance of schools and ranks them based on their academic achievement, comparing them with other schools of similar student populations. The AYP, mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), requires the state to ensure that all schools and districts make adequate yearly progress. Program Improvement (PI) status is a determinations for Title I schools based on their Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).

What shapes this accountability system, in part, are the scores on a number of student assessments, called Standardized Testing and Reporting Program or STAR. Principal among these assessments for students with disabilities are the California Standards Test (CST), the California Modified Assessment (CMA), and the California Alternate Performance Assessment (CAPA).

The vast majority of students with disabilities take the CST. However, students who receive special education services have a wide range of abilities. While all students still need to participate in state assessments, some students with disabilities require alternate forms of assessment to make full participation possible and meaningful. The CMA and the CAPA provide these alternatives.

Those students with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) who previously performed Below Basic or Far Below Basic on a CST in English/language arts, Mathematics, and/or Science are eligible to take the CMA in that content area if they meet the California State Board of Education’s adopted participation criteria. The decision that a student with disabilities participate in the CMA is an IEP team decision. Any student with disabilities who meets the participation criteria and for whom the test is deemed appropriate by the IEP team can participate. The other test, the CAPA, is an assessment designed for students with significant cognitive disabilities.

The NCLB and the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) require that students with disabilities have access to grade-level, standards-based curriculum and be included in a statewide system of assessment and accountability. In pursuit of these goals, the United States Department of Education enacted regulations in April 2007 for alternate assessments that are based on modified achievement standards.

The California Department of Education, in response to these regulations, has developed and is now in the process of implementing the CMA. This same federal legislation has directed the revision of the CAPA, which is now designed so that the education and assessment of students with significant cognitive disabilities is linked to grade-level standards, as it is for the other assessments.

With the implementation of these grade-level, standards-based assessment instruments comes the assurance that all students with disabilities have access to the same curriculum as their general education peers. These assessments allow students with disabilities to demonstrate mastery in a way that is appropriate and accessible.

Two county offices of education in California are leading the cry of “Fair!” in light of these two new assessments. Riverside County Office of Education and San Francisco County Office of Education are moving forward to implement the CMA in one case, the CAPA in the other, and both with stunning energy, creativity, and commitment. The following two articles offer a glimpse at these districts and what inspires the way they are assessing—and supporting—those students who are often the most academically challenged.


Assessment Resources

For more about the API, go to

For more about the AYP, go to

For more about PI schools, go to

Ensuring Appropriate Accountability for All Students The California Modified Assessment

San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) has a history of putting students first. With this history, SFUSD’s implementation of the new California Modified Assessment (CMA) says something about the consistency of the district’s concern for its students—and its interest in exploring new, potentially valuable ideas.

Robert Maass, Supervisor of SFUSD’s Achievement and Assessment Office, served on an advisory workgroup for the CMA as it was being developed. This placed him in an ideal position to determine the value and the potential efficacy of the test. “We are very particular in what we choose to pilot and thoughtful of teachers’ instructional time in making these decisions,” said Maass in a phone interview. But San Francisco did pilot both the CAPA and the CMA, the latter a little over a year ago, “for teachers to get an idea of what it encompasses and for us to get feedback.”

CMA Formation

The STAR Technical Advisory Group (TAG) on which Maass served—consisting of policy experts, psychometricians (educational assessment specialists), school district staff, researchers, and CDE consultants—provided a necessary and ultimately balanced perspective, according to Maass. The group’s purpose was to recommend important revisions and improvements to the assessment. In Maass’s opinion, the primary agenda among all of those involved was a “desire to appropriately assess students” and to study “research on the changes that needed to be made” to the CMA.

The impetus for the ultimate shape of the CMA emerged from what was happening to those students who are academically “in between already existing assessments—the CAPA and California Standards Tests (CST).” These students have skills that are worthy of being measured, yet they may require significant modifications to the typical assessment tools—modifications that render their scores not eligible for inclusion in their school totals. “What came up is that those students who fall between the CST and the CAPA in terms of their abilities were being given a modified CST that did not count for federal accountability measures, because the modifications [that gave them access to the assessment] invalidated the test,” Maass explained. Maass is not the only one who believes that there is “no point in giving a student a test that doesn’t count.” Educators and policymakers want a test that more students can take and that includes them in the larger picture of academic achievement.

New CMA Characteristics

What has emerged is the new CMA: an assessment that tests grade-level standards and that uses a test construction designed to meet the needs of students—and that is valid. The CMA’s grade-level, standards-based assessment has been adapted in the following ways:

Having been on the development side of this effort, Maass moved forward with confidence when he volunteered the SFUSD to pilot the CMA. He believed that implementing the assessment early would give his teachers a “no consequences” opportunity to see what the assessment involved. Since it was a pilot, the scores didn’t yet count, and so it was purely a chance to “get acquainted” with the tool. The happy ending is that the teachers’ response was “overwhelmingly positive about their experience with the CMA. Usually pilots create some grumbling,” Maass noted from experience—but not this time. “The teachers saw the purpose and benefits for both students and accountability.” Maass added that “the teachers believed that the CMA, for the group of students who are eligible to participate, was fair and allowed them to show what they could do.”

Numerous Advantages

In addition to issues of fairness for students and accuracy of assessment, educators at SFUSD embraced the CMA for a very practical reason: It will allow their school’s accountability scores to improve. “We have high-performing schools,” said Maass, “that are not making AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) because special education is a significant subgroup” that is affecting the overall score due to a lack of assessment options. “The CMA will help these schools’ overall assessment scores because the [CMA] is an accurate accounting of what these students can do.” A fourth advantage, as Maass sees it, is that the standards that are covered in the test also “help the teachers focus their curriculum” on subject matter that is essential for students to succeed in learning the curriculum.

Gathering Confidence

Maass also sees a psychological advantage to early implementation. It gives to those “students who in the past have
not had successful experiences on standardized testing a chance to demonstrate what they have learned in school, in
a way that is appropriate.” Early implementation and a chance to “practice” makes it possible for these students
to “finally gain confidence in their abilities and approach the test with some optimism.”

Deborah McKnight, SFUSD’s Executive Director of Special Education, is proud of her district—and getting prouder. She writes that SFUSD “is the only large urban school district that met the AYP proficiency targets for ELA [English/language arts] and Math for our students with disabilities. However, we did not make the AYP targets for participation rates. We are excited
about the CMA moving forward!”

One of the goals of the California Department of Education is to create “flexible assessment options for special education students.” The California Modified Assessment, as it contributes to this range of options, goes far toward ensuring that all students are included in assessments—in effect, that all students are important and all students count. 

CMA Resources

For the STAR CMA Blueprints, participation criteria, comparisons of the CST with the CMA, and more, go to
For the official STAR CMA Web site, go to

“All” Really Does Mean “All”

California’s Alternate Performance Assessment

Ask any educator of students with significant cognitive disabilities about what has evolved in the field in recent years, and be prepared for long stories—about federal legislative mandates, about academic content standards, and especially about the courage it takes to provide exemplary services in under-funded programs. For several years now, special educators who teach the most significantly involved students have been working diligently alongside their colleagues in general education to meet the mandates of IDEA ‘97 (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). The call is for states to give all students access to the general education curriculum in the least restrictive environment, for all students to participate in district-wide assessments, and for all students to be included in statewide assessments. This has made the practice of teachers working in isolation both inefficient and outdated. Educators now need each other more than ever if they hope to meet the demands of the legislation and the needs of all students.

The additional demands of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2001 required states to align a system of standards with assessments for all students. This presented unique challenges for teachers of students with significant cognitive disabilities. In order to meet this challenge in California, a group of dedicated educators painstakingly culled the California content standards and chose alternate performance standards, according to federal requirement. Those standards, chosen in 2001 and taken primarily from grades K–2, became the foundation of classroom instruction. The California Alternate Performance Assessment (CAPA), based on those alternate standards, then provided the federal accountability for all students, as required by NCLB. Teachers of students who take the CAPA became well versed in the language of content standards and in strategies for teaching standards-based instruction.

Then in 2004, the reauthorization of IDEA required California educators to go back to the CAPA and align it to all grade levels, not just K–2. In 2006, the California State Board of Education approved the revised CAPA blueprint, greatly increasing the breadth, depth, and rigor of the standards. For students with significant cognitive disabilities, who represent a small but important part of our school population, the challenge remains to continually raise the bar of high expectations for their achievement.

Building Internal Capacity

Research tells us what works in successful schools: collaboration, data-driven instruction, frequent common assessment, strong pedagogic support, leadership that offers a clear vision, and a mission that connects all students and all adults to school. As a County Office of Education, those of us in Riverside’s Special Education Unit saw these principles and goals for increasing student achievement in practice right across the hall with Educational Services and the Riverside County Achievement Team (RCAT)1 successes. But how could we mirror that work in our unit, which serves 1,400 students with disabilities across 23 districts? 

We made several important foundational shifts to build the internal capacity of our organization, shifts that were instrumental to our eventual effectiveness. In the spring of 2004, a group of us attended a Richard DuFour conference and were quickly sold on his idea of Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). During the first conference break, we told DuFour that “We want to do Professional Learning Communities, too, but we’re not a school. We serve students who take the CAPA in 23 districts across a large geographic area. How should we do this?” To which Rick DuFour smiled and said “I have no idea.” So we set about figuring it out.

We started by becoming conversant with DuFour’s three Key Questions:
1. What do we want students to learn? 2. How will we know when they have learned it? 3. And what will we do if they don’t? We also became fluent with the answers to these questions: 1. Standards, 2. Assessment, and 3. Research-based instruction. 

As early as 2004–05 we completely restructured our professional development efforts. Inspired in this area by Louisa Moats, 2 we moved away from one-day trainings to frequent collaboration during the contractual school day. We divided our county into three smaller geographic areas and, within these more manageable groups, started the hard work of addressing DuFour’s questions—and answers. Out of this effort we developed a summative assessment aligned to the CAPA blueprint standards—the Student Assessment of Needs Determination Inventory (SANDI).3 Administering this prior to IEPs (Individualized Education Programs) assures us that students’ needs are clearly aligned with standards-based goals. The SANDI gives the student, teachers, and parents a full understanding of the student’s current strengths, along with a map for the student’s instructional “next steps.”  Cognizant of what our general education colleagues were accomplishing with common formative assessments, we wrote one that is CAPA-based: our FAST (Formative Assessment of Standards Tasks). 

For the first time, teachers of students with significant cognitive disabilities had both summative and formative assessments based on the CAPA blueprints, along with a language for sharing progress and discussing research-based instructional strategies with teaches who worked with students at the same grades and levels. Magical! We started showing continual progress with our API (Academic Performance Index).

Then, in 2006 we received the news that, beginning in 2008, we needed to extend our alignment of grade-level standards to the twelfth grade.

Dedicated Employees

Our staff is extraordinary, and so was their response. As soon as the new CAPA blueprints were released, we began working on writing Functional Performance Indicators (FPIs) 4 with teams across two county offices. This involved “unpacking” each of the CAPA blueprint standards by defining steps toward mastery of that standard and then mapping possible ways that teachers can deliver classroom instruction that leads to mastery. We revisited our summative assessment document and realigned this annual IEP assessment with the revised CAPA blueprints. We also realigned the FAST to the grade-level CAPA blueprint standards, so that teachers were able to assess frequently, examine fresh student data, and make informed instructional decisions. The result was better than positive, and academic rigor became renewed both at home and at school.

Celebrating Small Successes

Our small successes are made possible by one large success: the PLC. When our teachers gather, they are quick to tell stories of student achievement and of the instructional strategies that got them there and that make their lessons rich and successful. The PLC inspired by DuFour, along with the new CAPA, has helped to renew our focus on standards-based instruction. Even the few teachers who doubted that some students could achieve under the increased academic rigor are becoming believers. We have raised CAPA scores, too. Last year, 72 percent of our CAPA students were proficient in English/language arts. We hope that happens again this year. But what we are most proud of is the work we do together to increase achievement for all students. If you were to stop by any one of our PLC meetings on Wednesday afternoons, you would see for yourself—when we say all students, we really do mean all! 

CAPA Resources

For the STAR CAPA Blueprints, participation criteria, adaptations, a video, and more, go to

For the official STAR CAPA Web site, go to



California Services for Technical Assistance and Training (CalSTAT)
A Special Project of the Napa County Office of Education| 5789 State Farm Drive, Rohnert Park, CA 94928
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