The settlement of a landmark class action in Oregon will allow students with learning disabilities to use electronic spell-check, dictation machines, and other forms of assistance deemed appropriate on a case-by-case basis to take statewide tests.
The settlement, reached Feb. 1, stems from a 1999 lawsuit filed against the state board of education by a group of parents who claimed that the standardized tests violated the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.
When designing the assessment system, first used in the 1998-99 school year, the board did not take into account the needs of Oregon students with dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, and other learning disabilities, according to the suit.
In the lawsuit, the parents of five children claimed that it was unfair that their children had been accommodated in classroom work, but then were not allowed those same forms of assistance on the Certificate of Initial Mastery Tests, which are given in grades 3, 5, 8, and 10. Students who fail the tests can be held back and forced to go to summer school.
‘A Model System’
Lawyers said the Oregon case is likely to have national implications as more states turn to high-stakes testing for greater accountability. In addition to promoting students to the next grade based on state test scores, an increasing number of states have started requiring high school students to pass exit exams to earn a diploma. Other states would be spurred to adopt exams for accountability if President Bush’s proposal for annual tests in grades 3-8 is enacted.
“Our hope is that [the case] will have a huge impact on high-stakes testing,” said Alison Aubry, a plaintiff’s lawyer with Disability Rights Advocates, a public-interest law center in Oakland, Calif. “Because of this settlement, Oregon will be setting up a model system that other states will pay attention to. A lot of states are trying to figure out how students with disabilities fit into the high-stakes testing systems.”
As part of the settlement process, a panel of experts in learning disabilities and education studied the Oregon tests for one year and issued a 42-page report incorporating recommendations that they said would help ensure students with disabilities are treated fairly on high-stakes tests. The report says 95 percent of students with disabilities failed the test given in 1999, as did 70 percent of nondisabled students.
One term of the settlement requires a facilitator be appointed to monitor the state’ s compliance with the agreement. Another establishes an appeals process for students denied accommodations.
In Oregon, students with disabilities had already been receiving some accommodations on tests, including the use of calculators. Some dyslexic students were granted extra time, while some students with attention deficit disorder took a test broken into shorter sessions.
But the settlement will permit all students with an individualized education plan, or a Section 504 plan, which are educational road maps tailored for each student covered under federal disability-rights laws, to plan for specific accommodations.
A student’s IEP team or Section 504 team, typically made up of parents, lawyers, and school officials, will make those decisions at its annual meeting. The accommodation would be allowed, as long as the state cannot provide evidence that it would give the student an unfair advantage, Ms. Aubry said.
An Oregon education official said many of the new procedures would be in place for tests to be administered later this spring.
“We are moving along,” said Wayne Neuburger, the state’s associate superintendent for assessments and evaluation. “The biggest question will be whether using the accommodation is the only way the student can demonstrate [his or her] abilities. We will also have to ask if the test would then be measuring something different than other kids.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 14, 2001 edition of Education Week as Ore. Special-Needs Students To Get Testing Assistance