Special Education

College Board Expands Test Supports for Special Ed. Students, ELLs

By Madeline Will — December 13, 2016 4 min read
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Students with disabilities will soon have an easier time requesting test accommodations from the College Board.

Starting on Jan. 1, most students who use testing accommodations at their schools through an individualized education program or a 504 plan will have those same accommodations automatically approved for taking a range of College Board tests, including the SAT, the Preliminary SAT, SAT Subject Tests, and Advanced Placement exams.

The College Board announced the changes—and that it would begin to provide additional testing supports to some English-language learners who are taking the SAT—earlier this month, following criticism for its testing practices regarding students with disabilities.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Justice’s civil rights division began to look into the College Board’s and ACT Inc.'s practices after hearing persistent complaints that they reject many requests for accommodations that are routinely provided by schools, such as extra time or frequent breaks. Students who are used to having testing accommodations at school typically have to take the exams without them and risk a compromised performance, or, in some states, they can take the tests with their usual accommodations but not receive a certified “college-reportable” score.

This has posed challenges for students with disabilities, particularly those in the states that require high school students to take either the SAT or the ACT. Beginning in January, school testing accommodation coordinators will have to answer two questions affirmatively to have most students’ requests be approved: “Is the requested accommodation(s) in the student’s plan?” and “Has the student used the accommodation(s) for school testing?” This change is expected to reduce the approval time for a vast majority of accommodation requests, the College Board said.

‘Their Best Work’

The accommodations that will be automatically approved under this new policy include extended time, extra or extended breaks, the use of a computer to type essays or short-answer responses, the use of a four-function calculator, and the use of a reader or a scribe, said Zachary Goldberg, a spokesman for the College Board.

If a student requests the use of assistive technology, such as a screen reader, the College Board “may follow up to determine what the technology is, that it functions appropriately with our assistive technology test form, and that it doesn’t violate test construct,” Goldberg said in an email.

He added that there will be rare instances where a student might not receive a requested accommodation after review—for example, when theaccommodation would compromise test construct or validity. A student requesting to see the test in advance would fall under that category.

“However, our primary objective is to ensure that students receive the accommodations they need to show their best work on our assessments,” Goldberg said.

Lingering Concerns

When Robbi Cooper, a parent in Austin, Texas, who is involved in the state chapter of the parent-led grassroots group Decoding Dyslexia, heard the news, she was “cautiously grateful.” She has been advocating for a fairer process for testing accommodations for months now.

Her son, Ben, who has dyslexia, is in 10th grade and uses a screenreader daily in his public school. His initial request to the College Board to use a screen reader on the PSAT and AP exams was denied.

Frustrated with what she felt was a systemic problem that puts students with disabilities at a disadvantage, Cooper filed a complaint with the Justice Department’s civil rights division. She also started a petition calling for the College Board to allow screen readers on tests for students with dyslexia.

Cooper also appealed the College Board’s decision, and her son was ultimately allowed to use a screen reader on his PSAT—but she said the process was expensive and time-consuming. The College Board’s new policy, she said, should help students who don’t have the resources to go through that process. “This changes the dynamic 180 [degrees] for kids with disabilities, for families, and for schools,” Cooper said. But she’s still waiting to see exactly how the College Board will judge assistive technology accommodations—many of which, she said, are standard in schools and needed.

“Until I see those clearly written down, I’m not ready to celebrate quite yet,” she said.

Supports for English-Learners

Also starting Jan. 1, English-learners who take a state-funded SAT during the school day will receive test instructions in their native language, and will be able to use an approved word-to-word bilingual glossary.

Spanish, Arabic, Mandarin, and other widely used languages willbe among the first to be offered, the College Board’s Goldberg said.

In the fall, ELL students taking a state-funded SAT during the school day can also receive extended time on the exam (up to time-and-a-half) and will be able to take the test in a room with fewer distractions.

Only a handful of states fund the SAT during the school day: Connecticut, Colorado, Delaware, Idaho, Illinois, Maine, Michigan, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island, plus the District of Columbia. The College Board expects to expand its ELL-testing supports to students taking the SAT in all states soon, Goldberg said.

This change comes just a few weeks after ACT Inc. announced it would start providing the same accommodations for English-learners in the fall of 2017.

A version of this article appeared in the December 14, 2016 edition of Education Week as College Board Eases Access to Supports

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