Professor wins grant for research to improve assessments for students who have significant cognitive disabilities

Meagan Karvonen, associate professor of educational research, won a grant of more than $900,000 for a study designed to help develop more meaningful ways of assessing the progress of students who have significant cognitive disabilities.

Unlike large-scale, general education tests that assess students’ mastery of new and previous knowledge and help teachers plan what to teach, typical alternate assessments administered to students who have significant cognitive disabilities take snapshot measurements of proficiency within a year but fail to support learning that builds across years, said Karvonen.

“We were driven to do this work so that there can be meaningful links between assessment and instruction so that teachers are better equipped to teach to high expectations for a population that historically has been excluded based on assumptions about what they ‘can’t’ do – so that students have an opportunity to build skills over time,” she said.

With funding from a U.S. Department of Education Enhanced Assessment Grant, Karvonen and Shawnee Wakeman, a special education faculty member at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, recently began studying content and performance expectations over time of alternate assessments administered in Arizona, Maryland, South Dakota and Wyoming. They are examining the contents of the assessments, three years of student achievement data, and teacher and student variables. They also will provide technical assistance to states on interpreting and using their findings to improve assessment systems.

“Our research is about laying the foundation so we can start to look at progress across grades and creating meaningful progressions for learning and assessing,” said Karvonen.

Karvonen has been involved in research on alternate assessments since states were first required to implement them in 2000.

“I started with evaluating a federally funded project that provided professional development for teachers who were learning how to handle the new alternate assessment requirements,” she said. “After several years of research on this new field, I worked with colleagues on developing a new methodology for investigating alignment of standards, assessment, curriculum and instruction for students who take this type of assessment. This method is now widely accepted. What we learned through those alignment studies led us to the latest project.”

For more information, contact Karvonen at 828-227-3323 or