Published Online: June 5, 2012
Published in Print: June 6, 2012, as Challenges Seen in Testing Special Ed. Pupils on Common Core

Common-Core Tests Pose Challenges in Special Ed.

The path to devising assessments for students with disabilities that measure how adept they are at mastering the Common Core State Standards seems to be filled with hurdles to overcome before students face those assessments in the 2014-15 school year.

States are in the early stages of implementing the common standards, adopted by all but four states. Two consortia of states have been awarded contracts to design exams for most students—including some with disabilities—who will take the tests, which will be computer-based or computer-adaptive. Another two groups are designing exams based on the standards for the 1 percent of students with the most severe cognitive disabilities. All four groups are in various stages of test development.

One of the obstacles facing students with disabilities who will take the exams has less to do with the tests than with instruction, said Stephen N. Elliott, an education professor at Arizona State University, in Tempe. Mr. Elliot spoke May 22 at a U.S. Department of Education meeting addressing the challenges that remain in preparing new tests that all students are scheduled to take in 2014.

In his research, Mr. Elliott has found that the most time any state was able to spend on teaching the current standards was 81 percent of the time students were in school, and special education teachers covered even less of the content and standards.

"We get that test score, and we make that big inference that kids have been taught this," Mr. Elliott told the gathering of special education and testing experts, including members of the consortia that are designing common-core assessments and alternate assessments for students with significant cognitive disabilities. "Many students with disabilities need 30 to 40 more days of class time to get an equitable opportunity to learn."

And that disparity may only grow as the demanding common standards, in English/language arts and mathematics, are put in place.

"It's not that we can't improve assessments, [but] that can serve as a distraction from the critical need to improve instruction," said Louis Danielson, a managing director who focuses on special education policy and evaluation at the American Institutes for Research, a Washington-based organization.

Progress and Problems

The major hurdle of increased, improved instruction aside, the technical and content issues posed by the exams are numerous, experts at the Education Department forum said.

Students with disabilities have become a bigger part of state accountability systems, albeit gradually, during the past 20 years, so that now even students with the most significant cognitive disabilities are included in state testing programs.

One fundamental advantage to designing tests with students with disabilities in mind from the beginning is that, for the most part, the tests won't have to be adapted to work with those students after the fact, disability education experts have said. A need for such retrofitting is common with current state assessments.

But there's still a long way to go, Mr. Danielson said.

One big issue lies with computer-adaptive tests, which pull from a bank of test questions with a wide range of difficulty. The computer adjusts the difficulty of the questions it poses based on a student's performance on previous questions. One problem with that approach is that some students may shut down if they miss the first question, Mr. Danielson said. Then there's the risk that the computer will throw a student a question that's below his or her grade level because of a series of incorrect answers that leads the computer to those questions, a possibility that concerns special education advocates.

Yet another issue is that states using exams developed for most students by one of the two consortia working on those tests will have to agree on a common set of acceptable test accommodations—adjustments made, in other words, to help students with disabilities access the test content as easily as classmates without disabilities.

Read-Aloud Debate

Common accommodations include giving students additional time to take an exam, giving them a separate testing area, limiting questions to appearing one at a time, and adjusting the size of the typeface of the test. But one accommodation over which there is disagreement is whether, or how much, students should have test instructions or test content read aloud to them.

"I feel when reading reaches a point where it's about comprehension and they still have trouble decoding it, it becomes a test of decoding," Mr. Danielson said. "In earlier grades where decoding is being tested, it makes sense not to read aloud."

Students may waste a lot of their time when they hit unfamiliar proper nouns, reducing their fluency and comprehension, he said research shows. And students using digital text in class where read-aloud features are common may be stumped on tests where those features aren't allowed.

Alexa Posny, the Education Department's assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, said one proposed accommodation has already been a subject of concern: sign-language avatars. Students could invoke an avatar—a computer-generated version of a sign-language interpreter—to convert parts of the test into sign language if that accommodation was deemed necessary. ("Modifications Planned for 'New Generation' Common-Core Tests," June 8, 2011.)

However, if students are accustomed to live sign-language interpreters in class, the avatars could be startling and awkward to use.

"Students shouldn't suddenly encounter an accommodation they haven't used in the classroom," said Sheryl Lazarus, a senior research associate at the National Center on Educational Outcomes, in Minneapolis, which is leading one of two groups of states in designing alternative assessments for students with severe cognitive disabilities.

Those alternatives are a separate set of exams, now often referred to as "1 percent" tests. That's because the federal No Child Left Behind Act allows the scores of no more than 1 percent of students who take such exams to count in school accountability measures, in part to discourage schools from giving the alternatives to too many students.

In some cases now, students with severe cognitive disabilities don't take exams that resemble those of peers without disabilities. Instead, a collection of their work is put together to demonstrate their skills.

Mr. Danielson argues that the time has come to put an end to those portfolio-style assessments—a step that would not be universally popular. He said there are too many questions about how reflective of students' ability such collections are and how heavily they are influenced by teachers, who may be evaluated on their contents. Overly high proficiency rates may signal that expectations for students with disabilities are too low, he said.

"It's too tempting for teachers to help a lot with their [students'] work," Mr. Danielson said.

Vol. 31, Issue 33, Page 7

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