Special Report

Spec. Ed. Tech Sparks Ideas

By Lisa Fine — September 12, 2017 7 min read
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Indiana special education student Marvin Stuller couldn’t believe the boy reading aloud on the TV set was him. His teacher had videotaped him at the beginning of 5th grade and at the midway point. The “before” and “after” scenes of the then-12-yearold with speech difficulties were dramatic: His reading level had risen, and his voice had even lowered and deepened by the later video.

“‘Mom, I really improved,’” he told his mother when he got home that night, recalls his mother, Jenny Stuller of Elkhart, Ind. She was impressed with how the video gave her an intimate glimpse into her son’s academic progress.

As educators face new federal requirements to test all students annually in reading and mathematics in grades 3-8, states are experimenting with new ways of using technology to evaluate the abilities of special education students. Testing experts say that what educators learn from tailoring assessments to the needs of special education students could shape how they test regular students, who have more subtle individual needs.

Special education students are likely to be the “canaries in the coal mine” as educators experiment with new technological assessments, says David Rose, the coexecutive director of the Center for Applied Special Technology, or CAST. The nonprofit group, based in Wakefield, Mass., seeks to expand educational opportunities for students with disabilities through the use of technology.

“[Special education students] are the first to experience an ‘oxygen deficit’ if a test doesn’t work,” Rose explains. “It’s like when you test-drive a new car: You do it on rough terrain. You take it out to where it will be tested.”

Testing in the Margins

Many districts and an increasing number of states are ramping up to launch computerized assessments, which experts say can be more efficient, use less labor, and provide instant scoring. The tests will offer the potential for more sophisticated accommodations, such as the use of spell-checkers or audio features that read questions aloud.

“There was a time when schools would try to deter as many special education students from taking the tests as possible—tell them to stay home on test day so their [schoolwide] scores wouldn’t be lowered,” says Robert Dolan, a senior research analyst at CAST. “Now, all of those students have to be included, so states want to do whatever they can to help them score as high as possible.”

At the same time, those students’ difficulties on such tests could bring to light broader problems: whether the tests are really evaluating the right material; if administration of the tests is biased; and whether the technology presents more problems than it overcomes.

For example, if a student is uncomfortable in front of a camera, the videotaping approach may be counterproductive. Or if a student is a poor typist, computerized assessments might be more difficult than paper-and-pencil versions.

“The [testing] revolution begins in the margins,” Rose says. “Special education students are being increasingly pushed toward the general education curriculum. How they adjust will teach us a lot about assessments.”

In Indiana, for instance, educators use electronic portfolios to measure the progress of students with disabilities. To do that, teachers collect videotape, audiotape, and written materials on their students and then scan that information onto CD-ROMs. Teachers review the electronic portfolios to determine if children are ready to advance to the next grade.

Many general educators have looked on enviously at those alternative assessment methods, and some have even adopted the practices themselves, says Robert Marra, the state director of special education for the Indiana Department of Education.

“General education teachers who have seen the tapes want to be able to do this for their children,” Marra says. “There are some who are using the videotapes and other techniques already.”

What’s most important, Marra says, is that the portfolios are helping teachers prepare students with disabilities for regular assessments. The teachers have feedback right away on how a student is progressing. Unlike with conventional testing methods, there is no lag time while a test is being scored.

The electronic portfolios also cut down on reams of paperwork, one of the chief complaints of special educators, because the digital records help teachers document information on how a student is progressing as required by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Marra says.

What’s more, teachers can use the electronic portfolios to carry out IDEA-required obligations to give parents evidence of a child’s academic progress. Teachers can simply download the work from a computer and e-mail files to parents.

In the past, teachers and parents may have assumed that students with disabilities weren’t able to take assessments, because they performed badly on classroom tests that measure standards. But electronic portfolios have changed that impression, Marra says.

Seeing proof of a child’s abilities helps teachers and parents feel more comfortable with the prospect of the student being tested. Or, in some cases, a portfolio can be used in place of testing to show a student has met the standards for graduation.

“If a parent says, ‘I don’t think my child can do that,’ a teacher can turn around and show it to them on videotape,” Marra says. “Also, the parents could use it to videotape their children at home doing something the teacher didn’t know the student could do.

“It works both ways,” he says.

‘World of Glitches’

With states preparing to test so many more special education students who would otherwise have been exempt from the process, some states are already coming up with innovative technological accommodations.

Oregon is devising a test that would allow hearingimpaired students to use American Sign Language. By clicking on either English or ASL, the students could choose to read the problems in English text or see a pair of hands signing the questions—or even split the screen with both English and ASL.

The same concept could potentially be used for, say, Spanish-speaking students for whom English is a second language.

Oregon is also working on a version of the test that would allow certain students with disabilities to hear the questions read aloud by the computer. In some cases, that feature could benefit students with reading disabilities or visual impairments.

Though the state has no plans to offer the option to students without disabilities, Pat Almond, the assessment project director, says one day the audio feature could be used on tests taken by all students. She emphasizes that would not be the case, of course, if the test were designed to assess reading ability.

The prospect of having an audio capability on tests for all students isn’t financially out of sight, Almond adds, because the technology to do so is becoming more widely available and affordable.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts has prepared versions of its state assessments for students with disabilities that would allow the use of text readers.

About 1,000 Massachusetts students with reading disabilities or visual impairments use the text readers for their classroom work; the accommodation is allowed in their individualized education plans, or IEPs, which are required by federal law. Only those students would be eligible to take large-scale assessments using the text readers.

Careful piloting of such programs is essential, says Daniel J. Wiener, the state’s assessment coordinator for special populations. For example, text readers have a tough time presenting math problems that include Greek symbols, or equations within parentheses.

“There’s just a world of glitches out there,” Wiener cautions. “It’s expensive to test these students. You don’t want to go down the wrong path.”

Because of the high cost and other potential problems, he doesn’t foresee that text readers will ever be used by general education students.

And, he says, “it would not be appropriate to provide use of an electronic reader to a student who does not have a disability that prevents him or her from learning to read without use of a reader.”

’Show What They Know’

For states gearing up to offer assessments online, the act of transferring a paper-and-pencil test to a computerized format would be like designing a building with no wheelchair ramps, wide hallways, or elevators, says Dolan of CAST. Undoubtedly, retrofitting the traditional tests would prove expensive and complicated, he says.

Still, Oregon is developing computerized tests in which teachers would set individualized parameters for special education students, according to Gerald Tindal, the director of behavioral research and teaching at the University of Oregon’s college of education. For example, students with disabilities who are poor readers could take a math test with the reading level adjusted to their own needs.

It seems to Tindal that such a strategy could one day be used with all students to make sure their knowledge of academic content isn’t held hostage to an unrelated skill.

“It would be great if we could increase the opportunity for students to show what they know,” Tindal says. “It’s an interesting time to proceed in the context of high-stakes testing.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 08, 2003 edition of Education Week


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