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PARCC Proposes Common-Core Test Accommodations

By Lesli A. Maxwell & Christina A. Samuels — April 23, 2013 6 min read
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The first of two groups of states working to design assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards has released a draft accommodations manual that outlines the types of test supports that can be used to help English-language learners and students with disabilities demonstrate their content knowledge and skills.

The Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC—made up of 22 states—will circulate the policy for public comment through May 13. The PARCC governing board will vote on the final document in June.

The manual’s recommendations, released last week, are intended to expand access to tests beyond what may be currently available for students in some states, said Tamara Reavis, PARCC’s senior adviser for assessment, accessibility, and equity. Its details indicate that some accommodations once linked to students with special needs—such as repeating instructions aloud or magnifying text—are now among the test’s “embedded supports” available to any student, even those who are not formally identified as ELLs or students in special education.

But advocates for English-learners and students with disabilities are expected to take a close look at the proposals, both for what they represent in terms of accessibility and for what they may mean for classroom instruction. Advocates in both camps have said that even the most accessible test will be impossible to pass if students with disabilities and English-learners are not given a chance to master the academic challenges that the common-core standards will bring.

Assuring Access

One of the two main consortia developing tests aligned to the Common Core State Standards is recommending accommodations that can be used in assessments given to students with disabilities and those learning English.

Among them:

Students with Disabilities

• Calculators

• Word-prediction software that types an entire word using a few keystrokes

• Read-aloud of test passages or instructions

• Dictation or transcription software

English-language learners

• Word-to-word translations from English into a student’s native language

• Clarification of test directions (not test items) delivered in a student’s native language

• Oral responses on math assessments, which would be dictated into text

• Frequent test breaks

Source: Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for Colleges and Career

For English-learners, the consortium states that accommodations must: reduce the “linguistic load” or complexity of the language that is necessary for students to access the content in curriculum or on the assessment; refrain from altering what is being measured in a test item or altering the test itself; and help “address the unique linguistic and sociocultural needs of an EL by reducing the effects of English-language skills on the student’s overall performance on the assessment.”

The proposed policy further states that students who are currently classified as English-learners under the criteria used by their states would be eligible to receive accommodations approved for English-learners on PARCC tests. Students whose parents have refused language-support services for them would be eligible for accommodations, so long as they are classified by their district as an English-learner.

The manual urges that any decisions about accommodations for English-learners be made by more than one individual, and may include English-as-a-second-language and bilingual teachers, content-area teachers, guidance counselors, principals, parents, and students, among others. These same stakeholders should also decide on and assign accommodations to English-learners early in the academic year or upon enrollment, the recommendations say, and no student should encounter an accommodation for the first time on test day.

Among the accommodations available to English-learners would be word-to-word translations from English into a student’s native language and frequent breaks during testing.

Gabriela Uro, the manager of ELL policy and research for the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools, which represents 67 of the nation’s urban systems, said that most of the recommended accommodations seem to have been developed with “a paper-and-pencil test in mind,” even though nearly all students will take the exams on computers. One example, she said, would be providing an accommodation on the English/language arts test in which students could speak their answers and have them transcribed to text, as is recommended for math.

“For kids who don’t speak English well, or who have accents, this would have to be worked out,” she said. “But it can be done. The technology is there.”

Ms. Uro said some of the draft language related to federal and case law that is central to English-language learners having equal access to education is vague and could cause confusion for states and districts. She also pointed to language in the draft suggesting that accommodations for English-learners be “individualized,” akin to how decisions are made for students with disabilities.

“How do you operationalize something like that in a district like Santa Ana [Calif.], where 60 percent of the students are ELLs?” Ms. Uro said.

Varied Categories

For students with disabilities, the draft manual outlines five categories of accommodations available to students that would provide “equitable access” to the tests.

One category—known as “presentation accommodations"—would include changes in the method or format in which the test or test questions are provided to the student. They may include, for example, the use of Braille or sign interpretation of test items.

Another category, “response accommodations,” would allow changes in the method used by the student to provide responses to test questions. These may include dictating responses to a scribe or using a Braille note-taker.

Proposed timing and scheduling accommodations include extending the amount of time allowed for testing, letting a student take frequent breaks, or allowing a student to take the test at a certain time of day. “Setting” accommodations would include changes to the location or conditions in which the test is administered, including a separate location or group size.

Finally, the proposal would allow expanded access to the test for a small number of students with disabilities in reading, writing, and calculating who require additional supports and meet certain criteria, as noted in their individualized education program.

Broad Availability

In addition, a number of accessibility features would be available to all students, either by the student’s choice or at the discretion of a school. Those features include computerized pop-up glossaries, spell-checkers, or magnification.

Some proposals may prove controversial, including PARCC’s recommendations for how to handle issues such as read-aloud accommodations on English/language arts tests and the use of calculators. The consortium has proposed that read-aloud accommodations be provided only to students who are blind and have not learned Braille, or students with “a disability that severely limits or prevents him/her from accessing printed text, even after varied and repeated attempts to teach the student to do so.”

The use of calculators would be restricted to students with a disability that “severely limits or prevents the student from calculating, even after varied and repeated attempts to teach the student to do so.”

PARCC sought feedback on those specific elements of the accommodations manual earlier this year and received about 3,500 responses.

Rather than linking accommodations to particular disabilities, some advocates have argued that the test-makers should determine if an accommodation will cause a problem in an assessment. The education task force of the Consortium of Citizens with Disabilities, a Washington-based advocacy group, made that point in a response to an earlier draft.

“All access features should be available to all students unless and until PARCC can provide evidence that use of that feature as an accommodation fundamentally alters what is intended to be assessed by the test item,” the organization wrote in a February letter.

The other group of states working on new assessments to measure how well students are mastering the common core—the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium—is expected to release its draft policy on accommodations in late summer or early fall.

A version of this article appeared in the April 24, 2013 edition of Education Week as PARCC Proposes Common-Core Test Accommodations

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