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.