Assessment FAQ


1. What was the purpose and goal of NCSC?

The primary purpose of NCSC was to develop an alternate assessment system to ensure that all students with the most significant cognitive disabilities are able to participate in an assessment that measures what they know and can do in relation to the grade-level Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in English language arts –reading and writing, and mathematics. States using their own College and Career Ready Standards (CCRS) were also able to participate by conducting and providing their own alignment studies for the same purpose.

NCSC’s longterm goal was to ensure that students with the most significant cognitive disabilities achieve increasingly higher academic outcomes and leave high school capable of pursuing postsecondary options. Because a welldesigned summative assessment alone was insufficient to achieve this goal, the NCSC Assessment is one component of a system that also includes curriculum, instruction, and professional development to enable students with the most significant cognitive disabilities to access grade-level content aligned to the CCSS. All partners shared a commitment to the research-to-practice focus of the project, and to the development of a comprehensive model of curriculum, instruction, assessment, and professional development for teachers.

The NCSC GSEG project incorporated:

  • best practices and lessons learned from over a decade of research on assessment, academic instruction, communication, and learner characteristics of students with significant cognitive disabilities
  • a collaborative effort that brought together experts and practitioners from a variety of fields including special education, assessment, curriculum and instruction, and communication sciences
  • a practice-oriented approach designed to support administrators, teachers, and families.

2. What is the purpose of the NCSC Assessment?

The purpose of the NCSC assessment is to ensure that all students with the most significant cognitive disabilities are able to participate in a summative assessment that is a measure of what they know and can do in relation to the grade-level Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in English language arts – reading and writing, and mathematics. States that do not instruct or assess the CCSS may complete alignment studies to their individual state College and Career Ready Standards (CCR) to adapt the assessments and ancillary resources for their individual state use.

The NCSC summative assessment was developed to serve three main purposes: produce valid scores for state accountability systems, provide appropriate data for reporting, and measure student growth. The summative assessment produces aggregate scores that can be used to meet requirements of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. States report the scores from this assessment for their state accountability systems.

3. How are students identified to participate in the NCSC Assessment?

The student’s IEP team uses the NCSC Assessment participation criteria that are described in detail in the Guidance for IEP Teams on Participation Decisions for the NCSC Alternate Assessment, which can be found at the following link:

The criteria for student participation in the NCSC Assessment reflect the pervasive nature of a significant cognitive disability. All content areas should be considered when determining who should participate in this assessment. The table below shows the participation criteria and the descriptors used to determine eligibility for participation for each student.

NCSC Assessment Participation Criteria

Participation Criteria

Participation Criteria Descriptors

1. The student has a significant cognitive disability.

Review of student records indicate a disability or multiple disabilities that significantly impact intellectual functioning and adaptive behavior.*

*Adaptive behavior is defined as essential for someone to live independently and to function safely in daily life.

2. The student is learning content linked to (derived from) the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) or the state’s College and Career Ready Standards (CCRS)

Goals and instruction listed in the IEP for this student are linked to the enrolled grade-level standards and address knowledge and skills that are appropriate and challenging for this student.

3. The student requires extensive direct individualized instruction and substantial supports to achieve measureable gains in the grade- and age-appropriate curriculum.

The student (a) requires extensive, repeated, individualized instruction and support that is not of a temporary or transient nature, and (b) uses substantially adapted materials and individualized methods of accessing information in alternative ways to acquire, maintain, generalize, demonstrate, and transfer skills across multiple settings.


4. What theory of action did NCSC use to develop the NCSC Assessment?

NCSC’s Theory of Action is described in NCSC Brief 9: NCSC’s Theory of Action and Validity Evaluation Approach.

5. What ELA and mathematics content is assessed?

The English language arts (ELA) content covered by the NCSC Assessment measures reading foundational skills (early decoding skills), writing (narrative, explanatory, and argument – at different grade levels), vocabulary, and comprehension of literary and informational texts that are age- and grade-appropriate.

The mathematics content covered by the NCSC Assessment in the elementary grades concentrates on whole number operations and relations, spatial relations, and measurement. In middle and high school grades, the NCSC Assessment of mathematics content concentrates on problem solving and reasoning. These targets reflect mathematics skills needed for post-secondary education, workplace success, community involvement, and lifelong learning.

For more information, see NCSC Brief 7: NCSC’s Content Model for Grade-Aligned Instruction and Assessment: “The Same Curriculum for All Students”.

6. What is the design of the NCSC Assessment?

The NCSC Assessment provides eligible students in grades 3–8 and 11 the opportunity to demonstrate what they know in English language arts – reading and writing, and mathematics. All test items are aligned to the Common Core State Standards or a state’s College and Career Ready Standards. The assessment is not timed and may be paused and resumed at any point during the assessment.

Tables 1 and 2 describe the ELA and mathematics NCSC test sessions.


Table 1. NCSC ELA Sessions


Session 1: Reading

Session 2: Reading

Session 3: Writing

Session 4: Writing

Literary and informational reading passages and associated Selected- Response Reading items


Open-Response Foundational Reading items

(Grades 3 and 4 only)

Literary and informational reading passages and associated Selected- Response Reading items


Open-Response Foundational Reading items

(Grades 3 and 4 only)

Selected-Response Writing items

One Constructed- Response Writing item

Table 2. NCSC Mathematics Sessions

NCSC Mathematics Test

Mathematics Session 1

Mathematics Session 2

Selected-Response Mathematics items


Constructed-Response Mathematics Completion items in selected grades

Selected-Response Mathematics items


Constructed-Response Mathematics Completion items in selected grades

Description of Item Types used in the NCSC Assessment

The NCSC Assessment uses three item types, as noted in Tables 1 and 2:

  • Selected-response (multiple choice) for reading, writing, and mathematics. The student selects a response from either two or three options and the answer is worth 0 or 1 point.
  • Open-response reading items in grades 3 and 4 only. Students are requested to read aloud five words as each is individually presented. The reading open-response items are each worth 1 point. Students using a means of communication other than oral speech, such as Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) devices, American Sign Language, or eye gaze, are administered the selected-response Reading Foundational Items. Students who read braille are provided the words in braille.
  •  Constructed-response items require students to interact in some way with information to provide a response and may be worth more than 1 point.

o   Writing constructed-response - students produce a permanent product in response to a writing prompt using specific text types at different grade levels: Grades 3 - 5 - literary/narrative, Grades 6 – 8 informational/explanatory, and Grade 11 - persuasive/argument. The student, or a scribe, records the response to the writing prompt on either the response template in the online NCSC Assessment System or on the paper response template. External scorers evaluate the student response against a grade and tier specific rubric. The tier, or level of complexity of the writing item, will determine whether the student will provide a written constructed response, or will select responses in a set of related selected-response items.

o   Mathematics constructed-response - students develop an answer instead of selecting an answer from response options.

All directions and materials needed for administering the test items in a standardized manner are in the secure Directions for Test Administration (DTA) that accompanies each test form.

7. How was the NCSC Assessment designed to capture the performance of students with significant cognitive disabilities?

The NCSC Assessment was designed to capture student performance through two item design features: (1) levels of content complexity, and (2) degrees and types of scaffolds and supports. Teachers, parents, and other stakeholders reviewed the assessment design and item features from the very beginning and throughout test development.

Levels of Content Complexity

Each content target in the NCSC Assessment represents the critical curriculum and instruction content for progressing from grade to grade. The items developed to address each content target give students an opportunity to demonstrate what they know whether they are just beginning instruction on the content or have made a lot of progress. These beginning-to-advanced test questions for each grade-level content target are called a “family of items.” Each item family includes four items for each content target. The least complex items provide extensive adaptations, scaffolds, and supports. Other items for the same content target are designed to include more complex content with fewer adaptations, scaffolds, and supports. All students have an opportunity to interact with all levels of complexity. The test was designed in sessions so that as more data emerge and deeper understanding develops on patterns of student performance, states may shift to stage-adaptive designs.

Scaffolds and Supports

Every item includes scripted directions for test administrators to ensure that the item is given to the student as intended. These directions present specific ways a test administrator may adapt to the student’s mode of communication and unique needs, while ensuring that the student can independently demonstrate the targeted knowledge and skills.

Examples of scaffolds and supports in ELA include, scaffolds and supports include a read aloud administration, a range of text complexity of the reading level and vocabulary, length of text, providing an introduction to the text, rereading, pictures, prompts for what to listen for, and definitions. Mathematics items include using a read aloud administration, providing definitions, models or demonstrations, permitting use of concrete materials, and using simplified language or graphic organizers similar to those used in instruction. 

Additional supports for students, which are described below, include assessment features, test accommodations, and, a document titled, Procedures for Assessing Students Who Are Blind, Deaf or Deaf-Blind: Additional Directions for Test Administration. (This is a secure document and is not available to the public.)

Assessment Features

Assessment features are built into the technology platform and are available to every student, as needed. The assessment features include:

  •  Answer Masking
  • Audio Player
  •  Alternate Color Themes
  • Increase/Decrease Size of Text/Graphics
  • Increase/Decrease Volume
  •  Line Reader Tool
  •  Read Aloud/Reread item directions, response options, passages

Test Accommodations

Accommodations in the student’s IEP that are consistent with NCSC assessment policies must be provided to the student. The NCSC accommodations permit the use of

  • Assistive Technology (AT) for viewing, responding, or interacting with test items
  •  Paper version of item/s – The use of a paper-based presentation of test item/s is a state-specific policy.
  •  Scribe
  • Sign Language

Procedures for Assessing Students Who Are Blind, Deaf, or Deaf-Blind: Additional Directions for Test Administration

Test administrators who are assessing students who are blind, deaf, or deaf-blind must use directions for test administration that are specific to these students’ needs. The Procedures for Assessing Students Who Are Blind, Deaf, or Deaf-Blind provide the following information:

  • Tasks to complete before, during, and after the assessment
  • Strategies, with definitions and examples, that may be used by the test administrator, as appropriate for individual students
  •  Directions for Test Administration that must be used to administer open-response foundational reading items to students in grades 3 and 4 who are blind, deaf, or deaf-blind.

The summative assessment provides opportunities for students to independently show what they know at varying levels of understanding with use of structured scaffolds and supports. In this way, the NCSC Assessment addresses the targeted content for the age- and grade-appropriate general curriculum and the same model of learning as the NCSC curriculum, employs methods consistent with evidence-based curricular and instructional materials and classroom assessments, and provides useful information for educators and families.

For more information, see NCSC Brief 6: NCSC’s Age- and Grade-Appropriate Assessment of Student Learning.

8. Were the test items tried out with students prior to the operational test?

Yes. NCSC conducted a range of multi-phase field test activities prior to the operational assessment.

During item development, iterative reviews by teachers and other stakeholders, including try-outs of item design patterns and task templates, were completed to check assumptions. Stakeholder review of items was conducted at several steps in development. Then, a two-phase administration of items to large samples of students was completed. The first phase was conducted in spring 2014 to gather item statistics for the entire item bank, culminating in item data review and revisions. The second phase of the two-part pilot in fall 2014 for a targeted sample of students resulted in finalized operational forms. This two-phase pilot and field-testing approach was built on the NCSC principled design item development process, based on evidence-centered design (ECD) principles.

NCSC’s comprehensive approach to field testing also included a set of research studies: (a) student interaction studies in which NCSC experts worked directly with teachers and students to try out the NCSC platform and items, (b) action research designs partnering directly with teachers and students to understand accessibility options for students with the most complex needs, and (c) survey research to learn what was working and what needed improvement to the NCSC platform and items.

9. How was the NCSC Assessment administered to students?

The trained test administrator, typically the student’s teacher, provides a one-to-one test administration using the online test platform and Directions for Test Administration for grade-specific item presentation and response collection. All passages, items, and response options are designed to be read to the student by the screen reader or the test administrator.

10. How were test administrators and test coordinators trained to administer and coordinate the administration of the NCSC Assessment?

To ensure that the NCSC Assessment was administered in a standardized manner, test administrators had to complete 13 NCSC Online Test Administration Training modules for Test Administrators, and achieve an 80% accuracy score on the end-of-training final quiz. Then, the test administrator had access to the Directions for Test Administration and could administer the test to the assigned students.

Test coordinators had to complete four online training modules before coordinating the NCSC assessment administration.

11. How long did it take to administer the NCSC Assessment to each student?

Testing time varies for each student. Testing may be paused and resumed, based on student needs. In the first operational administration in 2015, half of students completed the Mathematics test in under 60 minutes; cumulatively 78% under 90 minutes, and cumulatively 89% under 120 minutes. In ELA, 37% of the students completed in under 60 minutes, cumulatively 69% under 90 minutes, and cumulatively 86% under 120 minutes.

12. What assessment supports were available for students who are also English learners?

Students who are English learners were administered the NCSC Assessment in the same way as other students who meet the participation criteria. English learners used the assessment features, as appropriate, and the IEP team-selected accommodations. 

13. Where can we view examples of items?

Yes. Examples of items may be viewed at the following link:

Sample Items (leads to sign-in page, no password required) - The Sample Items powerpoint presentation describes the NCSC Assessment design and provides examples of English Language Arts and Mathematics items.

14. Where can we find the blueprint used for the NCSC operational test?

The document that includes the test blueprint may be viewed at

This document describes the 2015 operational design of the NCSC test blueprint for the summative assessment in Mathematics and ELA – reading and writing. States will continue to improve and redesign the test blueprint as the system matures.

15. Where may a State find information about the delivery system used for the NCSC Assessment?

This information is located at: NCSC Solution Architecture for Spring 2015 PDF.

This document describes the NCSC Assessment System architecture used to support the spring 2015 administration. It includes a list and explanation of all components of the NCSC Assessment System and information to describe the interaction of each element. Most of the NCSC system is built with source code that is licensed in a way that allows the software to be freely studied, modified, extended, and/or distributed. This is in contrast to a proprietary commercial system that does not make code publicly available and typically requires users to pay reoccurring licensing or usage fees for the software. 

16. What are the technology requirements to use this delivery system?

Further information about the technology requirements may be found at: NCSC Proposed Workstation and Bandwidth Technology Requirements 3-28-2014 PDF.

17. Are licenses for the use of the NCSC system and content available for use by others? 

Yes. As part of the NCSC transition post-grant, edCount Management, LLC, has been authorized to act as the agent to protect the Intellectual Property (IP) of the grant project and to respond to inquiries regarding the system and items. Several licensing options are available for entities who want to make use of the NCSC system and/or test content. For more information, please visit the website