Special Education

Common-Assessment Groups Differ on Special Ed. Rules

By Christina A. Samuels — April 02, 2013 7 min read
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Champions of students with disabilities have long complained that those students are often an afterthought in state testing plans. Only after a test design is completed are educators asked to go back and adapt the questions for a student who is blind, who needs help accessing text or calculating numbers, or who must use a specialized device to register responses.

The assessments for the Common Core State Standards have the potential to change that, experts on the issue say, by putting the need for accessibility and accommodations front and center.

Martha Thurlow, the director of the National Center on Education Outcomes, described the participants in developing the new tests as “intensely engaged.”

“They see the great opportunity, and they fear the possibility of not reaching the potential these tests have,” Ms. Thurlow said. The federally funded NCEO, based at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, is working with all the consortia tasked with creating assessments for the common standards, which have been adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia.

But putting a priority on the needs of such a diverse group of learners has also exposed the challenges underlying the task that the consortia have set for themselves.

States that have widely differing policies on handling accommodations, such as reading aloud as part of a test, have to come together and support a common policy. Disability-advocacy groups have registered their concerns that the accommodations policies might create a new level of bureaucracy that will ultimately make it harder for students to get the supports they need. Technology experts wonder if the tests will be able to be accessed by the different devices and software packages now in use.

And looming over all those questions is a paramount instructional concern: Even with a perfectly designed and accessible test, will students with disabilities get the instruction they need to be able to perform well?

Stephen N. Elliott, the director of the Learning Sciences Institute at Arizona State University in Tempe, has conducted research that shows teachers spend about 80 percent of their instructional time in the general education classroom on instruction that relates to state standards. For students with disabilities, the time spent on standards-based instruction drops to about 50 percent.

“Instead of asking did [students with disabilities] get an appropriate accommodation, ask, ‘Did they have an opportunity to learn?’ ” Mr. Elliott said.

Varied Approaches

The two largest consortia working on tests for students with disabilities, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, have taken different approaches to drafting an accommodations and accessibility policy for students with disabilities.

PARCC’s approach has been higher-profile because the consortium intentionally opened up some hot-button issues for public review. It sought comments for proposed policies in how to handle the use of read-aloud accommodations on English and literacy tests; calculators; word-prediction software that allows students to produce an entire word from a few keystrokes; and a human or computer-based scribe that can take down a student’s spoken words.

The consortium gauged its audience correctly when it assumed that its proposed policies on those issues would draw interest: It received 3,500 responses to a survey it created to gauge opinion, as well as written correspondence on the issue.

Among the commenters was the Consortium of Citizens with Disabilities. The Washington-based coalition of advocacy groups did not like the suggestion that only certain types of students should be able to use certain accommodations. For example, PARCC’s draft policy, which will be open for additional comment later this month, says that read-aloud accommodations on English and literacy tests should only be used by students who have disabilities that severely limit access to print, or students with visual impairments who have not yet learned Braille. From the perspective of the disability coalition, such a policy would turn the focus to the student, when attention should be paid to what the test question is attempting to measure.

But the creators of the policy said that their work, done in consultation with technical advisers, is more liberal than what is now allowed in many states.

“We’re actually opening a lot of doors that have been closed for these students in many states,” said Tamara Reavis, the senior adviser for assessment, accessibility, and equity at PARCC.

Ms. Reavis said the test creators envision having a tiered system of accessibility and accommodations. Some features would be accessed by the student, and others would require school and teacher intervention before the student could use them.

PARCC says it is open to making additional changes if needed after results from pilot testing come in.

“We are leaving it open that we can have a ‘version two’ we can release in fall 2014, if we have further data and other things we need to change,” said Danielle Griswold, a program associate for PARCC policy, research, and design.

Smarter Balanced plans to release a framework that shows the research underpinning its accommodation policy later this month. Later, the organization plans to produce a document that lists accommodations students can use. The organization also plans to produce professional-development modules that will help school-based teams determine which accommodations work best for a particular student.

Some accommodations, such as extended time, will probably be subsumed into the larger pool of “accessibility” options, according to officials of Smarter Balanced.

“We’re creating a lot of material that’s pushing the field forward,” said Magda Chia, the director of support for underrepresented students at Smarter Balanced. “We’re pushing the accessibility piece of the assessments forward by leaps and bounds.”

Severe Cognitive Issues

Two additional, smaller consortia, one known as the National Center and State Collaborative and the other called Dynamic Learning Maps, are working on assessments that will be appropriate for students with severe cognitive impairments.

Teachers of students with severe disabilities are hungry for detailed lesson plans that link to the college- and career-ready standards of the common core, said Rachel Quenemoen, the project director for the National Center and State Collaborative. The NCSC has made a comprehensive system of instruction and assessment an explicit goal, she said.

Neal Kingston, the project director for Dynamic Learning Maps, said that organization is creating assessments that will be embedded within the day-to-day instruction that such students receive. Student learning is therefore tracked throughout the year.

“We have created instructional materials, that, if we’ve succeeded, teachers would use even if there were no assessment involved with them,” Mr. Kingston said. “And we’re embedding them in a technology system that allows us to make useful inferences from the activities you would do anyway.”

But some experts wonder if the groups, particularly the larger consortia, are pushing hard enough to create new ways of assessing students.

Dave Edyburn, a professor in the department of exceptional education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and an adviser for PARCC, has argued in favor of broader access to the same technology those with disabilities would use in college or their careers.

“We should be inspired by what’s happening in real life,” he said.

Diane Cordry Golden, the policy coordinator for the Missouri Council of Administrators of Special Education, said the consortia seem to be working to embed their tools within the tests, but students with disabilities may struggle to learn an unfamiliar process.

Allowing a student to use an onscreen calculator, for example, may not help if the student is used to using a calculator with large buttons, or one with a computer-generated voice, said Ms. Golden, a former special education administrator who also serves as the project coordinator for the Association of Assistive Technology Act Programs.

“There’s just a lot of things that appear to be unresolved regarding access features this far in the process,” she said.

And there is still the continuing issue of access to the academic content in the classroom, a concern for both general educators and special educators.

“We’re getting better tests and better testing procedures,” Mr. Elliott said. “I think, though, the real issue is back in the classroom.”

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Coverage of the implementation of the Common Core State Standards and the common assessments is supported in part by a grant from the GE Foundation, at www.ge.com/foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the April 03, 2013 edition of Education Week as Test Rules Differ Between Groups for Special Ed.

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