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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.

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.

Comments from readers

"Ever since Computer Testing Systems (CTS) partnered with Peabody Education following the loss of their consumers after WWII (CTS used their high stakes tests at that time to determine who would become an officer and who would be "gun fodder" during the war), the education systems in the USA have been providing an endless source of income for the testing corporations. They reportedly make bilions of dollars off of their tests and it is highly likely that congress people who vote this stuff in are getting a cut of the profits under the table. (Yes, this is illegal, but this is what lobbyists do for a living). Can we extricate ourselves out of their python-like grip. I'm not so sure. As our media generally publishes what they are paid to publish by their owner (corporate, also), the whole thing is inexorably "tied up". Hopefully, enogh people can see their way clear enough to do something about this testing disaster, for that is what it is. As someone who works in the p! ublic school, I see the mess first hand. Thanks for listening. "
"I would really like to know about my legal rights as a parent related to a new high stakes test in Indiana that will retain students in third grade who do not pass the reading portion of ISTEP. My son has an IEP and received modifications for time on a test. How do we know this test is valid given it's short life, I believe it was only tested once on a group of students last year. How is it right to let a 40 question high stakes assessment determine whether a kid is a third grader or forth grader. They will make the kid take all the same ISTEPS again the following year if they fail the I-READ portfolio of ISTEP. THis is nuts. How can I fight it? Personally I think the state is sorting out the kids so they can raise AYP scores, the lower performing third graders are retained and the fourth grade scores go up along with the third grade scores when they have to retake the test. WHO's Making money on all this testing! "
"I really enjoyed this information. I am currently trying to support my 15 year old 8th grader whom took the test and failed and completed summer school and failed. This is the second time he will be repeating a grade. Not to mention, last year I was diagnosed with cancer and my child also was diagnosed with a pseudo tumor on his optic nerve. he tested under all these circumstances and then I find out...too late that with an exception he could have tested at a later date. I meet with our local super intendant Monday. Can you please give me some pointers. "
"thank-you for the chance to ask this question my 9 yr old daughter has been diagnosed with language processing skills she has been getting help in the speech room this year. however i requested a staffing for further special education services in oct. of 08 it didnt come about until jan. 09 her teacher was pushing for add meds because of casidys inattention the consensus at that time was that that was her major if not only problem i got her evaluated and put on meds for add and thought things were stable until june 2nd when her teacher called me at home informing me that the school principal had decided to retain casidy in 3rd grade i adamantly disagree she is 9 and started school a year after shewas eligible to begin wth more importantly i dont think its in the best interest of my daughter i want to know who makes the ultimate decision when it comes to retaining a child and arent the parents concerns necessary and important? sorry this is so long thank-you"