Native-language translations of test directions and math items, as well as a read-aloud option for middle and high school students, are among the accommodations that will be allowed on a limited basis under a policy adopted this week by a group crafting common-core-aligned tests in reading and math for 24 states.
The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium’s governing board voted unanimously onthat outline the kinds of testing supports and tools that will be made available to all students, and particularly those with disabilities and English-language learners. The issue of reading text passages aloud on English/language arts tests drew the most debate, with some disability advocacy groups arguing that test-makers should limit read-aloud supports only in situations where students are being tested on their decoding skills. Others argue that listening comprehension is not the same as reading and, thus, not a valid gauge of students’ reading skills.
The policy attempts to create a middle ground. Students in grades 3-5, a stage when learning to decode text is central to the curriculum, will not have the option to have text passages read to them on the English/language arts portion of the test. But students in middle and high school will be able to use a read-aloud accommodation and have the test be considered valid if their need for such a support is documented in an education plan.
The policy also makes a distinction between text passages and test questions and directions. All students will have the option to have test questions and directions read aloud to them if a school team decides they need that support.
The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium says that its usability and accessibility features will be grouped into three categories: universal tools, which are available to all students; designated supports, which are available to students at a teacher’s or school team’s discretion; and documented accommodations, which are supports that are a part of a student’s individualized education plan or other disability support plan. Embedded supports are a part of the test itself; nonembedded supports are provided by test administrators.
Mark for review
Turn off any universal tools
American Sign Language
Alternate response options
Print on demand
Note: Some tools can be in more than one category.
SOURCE: Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium
Magda Chia, Smarter Balanced’s director of support for underrepresented students, said the board’s decision was based on expert advice that reading text passages aloud would, for younger students, fundamentally alter the skills the test is measuring.
An earlier draft of the guidelines allowed elementary students who are blind and still learning Braille to have text passages read aloud, but the consortium was told that it could not legally single out one group of students for support while denying the same accommodations to others, Ms. Chia said.
States do have the option to offer the read-aloud accommodation even if doing so goes against the guidelines, but in that case, the test won’t be counted as valid, she said.
Categories of Help
includes three broad categories of testing supports for students:
• “Universal tools” are those that will be available to all students. Many are built into the technology platform students will use to take their tests and include English dictionaries, highlighters, spell-check programs, and breaks from testing.
• “Designated supports” are features that will be available to any student who can benefit from them, based on a teacher or school team’s discretion. Those supports would have to be identified for students ahead of any test administration. All the language supports available for English-learners fall into that category.
• “Documented accommodations” are for students whose individualized education or Section 504 plan calls for their use. That would include reading aloud text passages for middle and high school students, Braille, or closed captioning for hearing-impaired or deaf students.
Not every English-learner in the Smarter Balanced states will have access to the full range of available language supports. Member states with laws and regulations that restrict or prohibit the use of languages other than English to teach or assess ELLs do not have to offer such translation options for test-takers.
California, a Smarter Balanced state that is home to about 1.6 million English-learners, will offer the full array of language supports, said Deborah Sigman, the state’s deputy superintendent of education and a co-chair of Smarter Balanced’s executive committee. The state has offered a similar lineup of language supports to English-learners on its content assessments.
“At this point, we don’t see any conflicts with current law, but obviously, we will review as we begin our implementation of the Smarter Balanced assessments,” Ms. Sigman wrote in an email.
Among the language supports that ELLs may encounter on the Smarter Balanced math tests: translated test directions; translated glossaries for select words in math test items that help students understand specific terms; and complete or “stacked” translations of test items that will appear above the original English item.
All of those translation tools will be embedded in a test’s digital platform and can be turned on or off by test administrators. In addition, ELLs may also use nondigital translated glossaries to understand selected math terms on some test items. For the English/language arts assessment, English-learners may have access to a bilingual or dual-language word-to-word dictionary for the extended writing portions of an ELA performance task.
All the translation supports will be available in Spanish, the predominant native language of students who are English-language learners in Smarter Balanced states. But the test consortium will also offer translations in other languages, as determined by member states’ needs. So far, it has committed to providing the glossary translation tools in Vietnamese and Arabic, the next two most widely used languages in those states.
Gabriela Uro, the director of English-language-learner policy and research at the Council of the Great City Schools, said the language supports will help even the playing field for English-learners to demonstrate what they have learned.
And if scores for English-learners in states that offer the full array of language supports are better than for students who don’t get the tools, “it might open the door” for states with more restrictions around the language of instruction to think about how they can also offer the tools without violating their laws, Ms. Uro explained.
The other big group of states designing assessments—the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC—approved its first edition of testing supports for ELLs and students with disabilities in June.
PARCC, which received hundreds of comments on its proposed accommodations policy—many relating specifically to read-aloud accommodations—decided in June that students with persistent text-decoding difficulties can have text passages read to them, but a notation will be made on their score report indicating that no claims can be made about the student’s ability to demonstrate foundational print skills.
Timothy Shanahan, a professor of urban education at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a former president of the International Reading Association, offered a scathing assessment of PARCC’s read-aloud accommodations policy in his blog, saying it was an example of “dopey doings in the annals of testing.”
The Smarter Balanced approach to read-aloud accommodations is a better option, he said, though he would rather not see its use for text passages.
“The purpose of the test is to find out how well these kids can read,” Mr. Shanahan said. “If for whatever reason they can’t do it, that’s what we want to know.”
Lindsay E. Jones, the director of public policy and advocacy for the National Center for Learning Disabilities in New York, said she was “stunned” at Smarter Balanced’s blanket prohibition of read-aloud accommodations for students at the elementary level.
“Smarter Balanced has been inclusive in the discussions up to this point. That’s why I think this is so disappointing,” Ms. Jones said. She acknowledged concerns that read-aloud accommodations could mask inadequate instruction, but said the data that states will be able to collect through those tests will help pinpoint areas of concern or potential overuse.
“This conversation is not over,” she said. “We view this as the first step in what will hopefully be a long dialogue.”
The supports will be field-tested with student test-takers next spring. The full rollout of the Smarter Balanced exams will be in the 2014-15 school year.
A version of this article appeared in the September 18, 2013 edition of Education Week as Assessment Group Sets Accommodations Policy