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Science Academy Cites Deficiencies In Ability Tests for the

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Washington--The "modified" ability tests that may decide whether a physically handicapped student graduates from high school or is accepted by a college do not and cannot comply fully with federal regulations designed to prevent discrimination against the handicapped, according to a report issued here last week by the National Research Council, the research branch of the National Academy of Sciences (nas).

Although test developers have made substantial efforts to modify tests for handicapped people--those who are blind or deaf, in particular--"fully developed test modifications suitable for all handicapped individuals do not currently exist," says the panel.

Moreover, they add, most modified tests currently used have not been "validated" to ensure that scores on the tests accurately predict success in school or in a job, and "there is no information about the comparability of available tests for handicapped and nonhandicapped groups."

The report, Ability Testing of Handicapped People: Dilemma for Government, Science, and the Public, was prepared by a panel of educators and scientists for the U.S. Education Department's office for civil rights (OCR). OCR asked the panel to "reconcile" the federal regulations that dictate testing requirements for handicapped applicants with the data available on current testing practices and technology, according to a summary of the report.

Several cases involving such requirements are now in the courts, and judges have disagreed over the legality of "exit exams" for handicapped students.

The regulations in question, most promulgated under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, "seem to require that test developers and users modify tests and test administration procedures for use with handicapped people, construct and administer tests in such a manner that they reflect skills independent of handicapping conditions, report scores for handicapped people in a manner such that they are indistinguishable from those for nonhandicapped people, and validate tests for handicapped people for the purpose at hand," according to the report.

Included in the regulations, the panel notes, is the assumption that handicapped people can be tested in a way that will not reflect the effects of their handicap.

But despite considerable effort by educators and test developers, attempts to modify existing standardized tests have been "far from adequate," says the panel.

Given that inadequacy, and the lack of research on modified tests, the panel recommends that large testing programs used in college admissions and employment selection be immediately modified to meet the needs of people with sensory and motor handicaps. Once developed, these tests should be validated against actual performance in education or employment, according to a summary of the study.

The panel also suggests that OCR require educational institutions that receive federal funding to complete validity studies of the modified tests within four years of the time the panel's recommendations are put into effect.

Until then, the panel advises schools and employers to avoid the practice of "flagging" scores of handicapped applicants, which is now common practice. 'Flagging," they say, amounts to a "de facto labeling of examinees as handicapped" and may result in either negative or positive biases in selection processes. The decision to "flag" should be made by the handicapped person, not by those administering the test, the panel recommends.

Lack of Tests Studied

The lack of suitable, validated tests for physically handicapped people is not due to any one factor, according to the panel. One problem, they write, is that while modifications of some tests have been available for at least 20 years, the "methods for accommodating the needs of handicapped people on standardized tests are far from systematic or universally known."

"The factors to be considered are numerous and often much more subtle or complicated than many people realize," the report continues.

In addition, according to the panel, those responsible for testing handicapped students are not all equally sensitive to the issues. "The panel has been impressed by the determination, thoroughness, and sensitivity of some and appalled by the ignorance and insensitivity of others," says the report.

The tests potentially the most problematic for handicapped students, according to the panel, are "minimum-competency tests," which students in an increasing number of states must pass to receive a high-school diploma, and the standardized tests used by most colleges to help decide whether an applicant for admission should be accepted.

Significant Questions

The requirement that handicapped students take minimum-competency tests raises several signficant questions, panelists suggest--issues that are also germane for nonhandicapped students.

First, how should educators define which skills are "minimum," and should both handicapped and nonhandicapped students be required to master the same skills at the same minimal level of proficiency in order to pass?

"The importance of the inclusion of certain skills and the omission of others, which has received considerable attention for the general population, should receive equal attention for handicapped students," the panel recommends.

Second, what is the minimally acceptable score at which a student may pass, and will this cutoff point be applied equally to handicapped and nonhandicapped students?

Third, should a single test score be used to decide whether a student may receive a diploma?

"State and local policies that require minimum-competency tests for high-school graduation should be reviewed to ensure that modified tests are available, that only validated tests are used for handicapped people, and that scoring procedures are not discriminatory," according to a summary of the report issued by the nas

'Careful Planning'

"It seems clear that careful planning and consideration of all the ways in which minimum-competency testing programs will affect special-education students are essential if discrimination against handicapped people is to be avoided," the panel writes.

The same caveat holds true for college-admissions testing, according to the report, although, the authors note, testimony from admissions officers suggests that if a handicapped applicant has a low test score, admissions officials examine other records closely to determine whether they are accurately assessing the student's potential.

High-school counselors, the panel advises, should let handicapped students know what modified tests exist. In addition, counselors should be prepared to help students in choosing an appropriate test and in deciding whether their scores should be "flagged."

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