Implications of High-Stakes Testing for Students With Learning Disabilities

High school exit exams (sometimes called high-stakes tests) pose risks for students with learning disabilities. Find out how to address them in your school district.

By Candace Cortiella, The Advocacy Institute

Over the past decade, states have been engaged in a variety of education reform efforts designed to improve the quality of public education. One highly visible reform is "high-stakes" testing. The purpose of such tests is to improve student achievement. While students with learning disabilities have a lot to gain from increased focus on student achievement, high-stakes standardized testing can also pose serious obstacles and consequences. This article examines the current state of high-stakes testing and its implications for students with learning disabilities (LD).

Q: What exactly is meant by "high-stakes" standardized testing?

A: The term "high-stakes" is used to describe tests that have high stakes for individual students, such as grade promotion or a standard high school diploma. Thus, high-stakes testing is designed to hold individual students accountable for their own test performance, unlike "system accountability," which is aimed at the providers of education, such as states, school districts, and schools.

Q: How many states currently have high-stakes testing in place?

A: According to data collected by the Center on Education Policy in November, 2009, 26 states are currently using exit exams as a condition of getting a standard high school diploma. Some states have postponed or are considering postponing the dates by which their graduation test requirement would go into effect. These postponements have resulted from public pressure and lack of adequate phase-in time.

The use of testing to make promotion decisions is also on the rise, with about 17 states now requiring students to pass standardized tests as a condition of grade-to-grade promotion. In some states, school districts have adopted such policies even though the state has no such policy.

Q: Do states have the right to impose such tests on students with disabilities?

A: Yes. There is no federal law that restricts states from imposing high-stakes testing and its consequences on individual students, including students with disabilities covered under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504). In fact, to date, lawsuits challenging the applicability of graduation exams to students with disabilities have not been successful. Legal challenges alleging lack of access to accommodations and lack of opportunity to learn the academic content measured by the tests have met with more success, and, in some cases, have resulted in significant changes to state policies. Still, far more states sanction individual students for poor test performance than impose sanctions on the education system.

Q: Are students with disabilities required to participate in high-stakes tests?

A: The Federal special education law, IDEA, requires states and school districts to include students with disabilities in large-scale assessments. In addition, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) requires schools to include students with disabilities in several assessments of student performance and to disaggregate (separate out) the performance data into several subgroups, including special education students, so that the public will know if schools are providing adequate progress to historically low performing groups of students. It is important to note that the testing requirements of NCLB do not involve stakes for students. Many states, however, are using statewide assessments that carry high stakes for students to also fulfill the NCLB testing requirements.

Q: What are some of the most significant risks posed by high-stakes tests for students with learning disabilities?

A: Some of the most significant risks include:

Q: What are the barriers to success on high-stakes tests for students with LD?

A: The greatest barriers include:

Q: Are there certain questions that parents of students with LD should ask regarding their state's high-stakes assessment system?

A: Yes! Parents in several states have mobilized in opposition to poorly implemented high-stakes testing systems, resulting in critical changes that benefit students with LD. Given the enormous impact that these assessments can have on a student's life, parents need to fully understand their state's system and its implications.

Parents can use this checklist of essential elements of a fair and nondiscriminatory assessment system as a way to determine if their state's system needs improvement:

LEAD TIME: Has the assessment system and its "stakes" been phased in over a sufficient period of time so that students with LD (who often have not had full access to the curriculum) will not be negatively impacted? Adequate time is generally considered to be 4-6 years.

VALIDITY: Has the assessment system been developed and validated for use with students with disabilities? Frequently, the sample population that is used by test developers to set the average scores does not include students with disabilities nor take into account the use of accommodations.

ALIGNMENT: Has the assessment system been aligned with the state content standards? Are students actually being taught the material they are being tested on?

ACCOMMODATIONS: Do students with disabilities have access to all accommodations that have been used during instruction and testing and are listed in the student's IEP or Section 504 Plan?

RETEST OPPORTUNITIES: Are there multiple opportunities to retake a test?

PARENT INVOLVEMENT: Are parents fully included in the decision-making about a student's participation and the accommodations that will be allowed? Are parents fully informed about the implications of certain accommodations? Are parents fully informed about the implications of any alternative nonstandard diplomas and certificates that the state has developed?

MULTIPLE MEASURES: Are multiple measures of student performance used in the high-stakes decision-making process? Is student performance on course work and course grades, as well as other relevant information about the student's knowledge and skills, taken into consideration?

APPEALS PROCEDURES: Are there procedural safeguards in place to ensure that students are able to contest decisions about accommodations, scores, and decisions made regarding assessments?


Updated January 2010

Candace Cortiella's work as Director of the nonprofit The Advocacy Institute focuses on improving the lives of people with learning disabilities, through public policy and other initiatives. The mother of a young adult with learning disabilities, she lives in the Washington, D.C., area.