Special Education

Common Core Testers Unveil Proposed ‘Read-Aloud’ Accommodations

By Catherine Gewertz — December 21, 2012 5 min read
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Two accommodations policies under consideration by a 23-state assessment consortium could narrow the pool of children that would qualify for assistance on those tests in some of those states.

The governing board of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, voted last week to put the two draft policies out for public feedback. Once final, they will be included in the larger “accommodations manual” that will guide development of the assessment that will be taken by students in 22 states and the District of Columbia in 2014-15. The full manual is slated for a vote to release it for public comment at the PARCC board’s meeting in March.

The two smaller pieces that will be posted for public comment in January pertain to only two accommodation areas: the use of calculators on the group’s mathematics test and the use of reading accommodations on its English/language arts exam. A special page on PARCC’s website will be set up to view the policies and post comments. We will let you know when the link goes live. But in the meantime, we have the draft policies for you, since we attended the PARCC meeting where they were presented.

Lindsay Jones, the senior director for policy and advocacy at the Council for Exceptional Children, said the drafts contain language she welcomes, as well as language that is “raising some concern.” But let’s put the draft policies in front of you so you can have a look before hearing Jones’ reactions in more detail.

PARCC’s draft reading-access accommodation policy proposes to offer three types of assistance for students “whose disabilities create barriers to demonstrating their reading knowledge and skills":

  • Human read-aloud;
  • Recorded voice presented via an audio file; and
  • Text-to-speech technologies such as screen readers.

It says that such accommodations would be provided on PARCC’s end-of-year, summative assessment for “the small number of students who have a disability that prevents them from being able to decode text and/or who are blind or visually impaired and unable to read Braille.”

PARCC documents break down eligibility for these accommodations as spelled out below. (Capital letters and boldface type are PARCC’s.)

  • “Student with a specific disability that severely limits or prevents him/her from accessing written text even after varied and repeated attempts to teach the student to do so. The student must be a virtual nonreader; OR
  • Student with visual impairments who has not yet learned Braille; AND
  • Student must be receiving ongoing, research-based interventions to decode written text, including the use of Braille as appropriate, which must be documented as a goal in the student’s IEP; AND
  • Student only has access to written text in instruction through the use of reading-access accommodations (including Braille as appropriate), outside time spent in direct reading-intervention classes; AND
  • The accommodation is listed in a signed (i.e., approved) IEP with the disability documented by objective, measurable data points.”

Now let’s take a look at the draft calculator policy, which would allow eligible students to use the devices in math testing sessions that otherwise don’t allow them. Calculators would not be allowed on the use of items in grades 3-6 that are designed to test fluency, however.

The accommodation “applies to the small number of students with specific disabilities that severely limit or prevent them from performing basic calculations,” the draft policy says.

Breaking down further the question of who is eligible, the policy says:

  • “Student with a specific disability that severely limits or prevents him/her from calculating, even after varied and repeated attempts to teach the student to do so; AND
  • Student must be unable to calculate single-digit numbers without a calculator; AND
  • Student must be receiving ongoing instruction in learning to calculate, which must be documented as a specific goal in the student’s IEP; AND
  • Student only has access to mathematical calculation in instruction through the use of a calculation device, outside time spent in direct intervention classes; AND
  • The accommodation is listed in a signed (i.e., approved) IEP with the disability documented by objective, measurable data points.”

Chief among Jones’ concerns is the possibility that these two policies could narrow the pool of eligible students in at least some of the PARCC states.

“As I read it, the overall sense I get is that they are trying to limit the number of students who use these accommodations,” she said.

She noted that state policies on accommodation vary widely, and pointed to a May 2011 white paper, “Developing Common Accommodations Policies,” by the National Center on Educational Outcomes, which examined the test-accommodations policies of states in PARCC, and in states that belong to the other federally funded test-designing group, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, in 2007-08.

The NCEO found that in some PARCC states, less than 10 percent of 4th graders with disabilities were using reading accommodations on state tests, while in others, 90 percent of students were doing so. Looking only at one type of such accommodation, the read-aloud, the NCEO found that 16 percent of PARCC states allow it, 20 percent prohibit it, and 56 percent allow it with conditions. (The paper includes parallel findings for Smarter Balanced, but the two draft accommodations policies at issue here are for PARCC; we’ll let you peruse the paper for SBAC data rather than include it here.)

In light of those data, Jones says she anticipates that the PARCC policies, if adopted as currently worded, would narrow the pool of eligible students in some PARCC states. But it could expand that pool in others.

Another of Jones’ concerns springs from the fact that the draft policy refers only to IEPs, or Individualized Education Plans. Many children who receive testing accommodations don’t have IEPs, she said, but rather “section 504" plans, named for the part of the Rehabilitation Act that requires such plans for children with special needs. If the PARCC policies were adopted as they are currently written, she said, children who receive accommodations as a result of their 504 plans might not be considered eligible. That, too, could effectively downsize the number of children eligible for accommodations on state tests, Jones said.

She had praise, however, for the part of the draft reading policy that requires students to be receiving “research-based interventions” in reading in order to be eligible for a test accommodation in that subject.

“Absolutely, students need to be receiving that, and it’s lovely to see that reinforced,” she said. “That will influence the IEP process, the teachers in the room, and hopefully the schools, to reinforce the need to provide those research based interventions.”

Keep an eye on PARCC’s website—and on this blog—for news that public comment on these draft policies has opened. In the meantime, here’s a link to more information on PARCC’s technical working group on accommodations and accessibility.

A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.