Special Education

Wide Variation Seen in Testing of Students With Disabilities

By Christina A. Samuels — March 28, 2006 3 min read
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Driven by the accountability movement and the demands of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, states are requiring students in special education, like their peers in general education, to take state-mandated tests.

But often, students with disabilities require a special accommodation—such as Braille text, a word processor, extra time, or a scribe—to show their true capabilities on such tests.

Testing experts agree on the necessity for such accommodations, but say there’s little consistency across the states, or even within them, on which methods should be used, or when they are necessary.

Local and state school officials, as well as experts in testing and university researchers, came together here last week for a conference on accommodations for assessing students with disabilities. The March 19-21 gathering, which drew some 200 participants, was sponsored by the Council for Exceptional Children in Arlington, Va.; the Educational Testing Service, based in Princeton, N.J.; the New York City-based College Board; and the National Institute for Urban School Improvement, in Denver.

Though the issue of accommodations may appear narrowly focused, it can cut right to the heart of testing, by forcing test developers to focus on what they are trying to measure. Experts agree an accommodation like use of a word processor equipped with a spell check program may be appropriate on some language arts tests, but shouldn’t be used on a test that purports to measure spelling skills, for example.

“It’s really about stepping back and saying, just what is it we’re trying to test here?” said Janette Klingner, an associate professor specializing in bilingual special education at the University of Colorado in Boulder, who was a presenter.

Still More Questions

Schools must also determine what kinds of accommodations are appropriate for which students. Often, researchers say, educators have used a blanket set of accommodations, without taking the time to figure out whether they’re necessary for all students with disabilities. And at other times, the proctors administering a test may have no idea that there is a student who requires any accommodation at all.

“People would have discussions on what was going to happen on the day of testing,” said Martha L. Thurlow, the executive director of the National Center on Educational Outcomes, affiliated with the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. “But what happened on the day of testing was very different from what’s written on the [student’s individualized education program],” she said.

And in some cases, state policy is beginning to conflict with federal rules. For instance, the U.S. Department of Education has told California that if students with disabilities use calculators on mathematics assessments, those students cannot be counted as participating in the state test for purposes of calculating adequate yearly progress under the No Child Left Behind law.The state had allowed students to use calculators and was grading their tests as “below proficient.” (“U.S., California Tussle Over Test Modifications,” Dec. 14, 2005.)

One promising accommodation is simply granting students more time to take a test. Allowing more time tends to boost scores for all test-takers, though the increases are more evident among students with disabilities.

It may be reasonable to drop timing requirements from some tests, said Kurt F. Geisinger, the vice president for academic affairs and a psychology professor at the University of St. Thomas, in Houston.

“We have to find out what it is we’re trying to test, and is speed a part of what we’re trying to measure?” Mr. Geisinger said. “There are times when [speed] is important, but at other times, does it matter if something gets done very fast or not?”

States also need to work on a framework to guide members of IEP teams, said Stephen N. Elliott, a professor of special education at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tenn., and the author of several research papers in the field. That starts with allowing educators to have a “good working knowledge of the test,” he said.

Presenters here were blunt in saying that there are still too few answers to some of the thornier issues, such as just what kinds of accommodations work best for students with certain disabilities. Some research has been done on the subject of accommodations, but more is needed, they agreed.

“We’re attempting to hold school systems accountable for the learning of all students like never before,” said Richard Mainzer, the association executive director for professional services for the CEC. It’s imperative that professionals are able to strategize so they can help students without hurting students,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the March 29, 2006 edition of Education Week as Wide Variation Seen in Testing of Students With Disabilities

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