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Implications of High-Stakes Testing for Students With Learning Disabilities

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By Candace Cortiella, The Advocacy Institute

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:

  • Increased grade retention
    We know that large performance gaps exist between students with disabilities and their non-disabled peers. We also know that students with disabilities continue to be retained much more often than the general population - more than one-third are retained at grade level at least once, usually in elementary school. Promotion tests - the fastest growing area of high-stakes testing - will most likely contribute to even more retention of students with learning disabilities, despite the fact that retention has been shown to be an ineffective intervention to improving academic achievement. More importantly, students who are retained are much more likely to drop out later in school, and those retained more than once are dramatically more likely to drop out. Research on retention shows that grade repeaters as adults are more likely to be unemployed, living on public assistance, or in prison than adults who did not repeat a grade.

  • Increased possibility of dropping out
    Data show that students with disabilities fail large-scale tests at higher rates than other students, especially in the years immediately following the introduction of such tests. One important reason for this is their lack of access to the curriculum on which the tests are based. Failing a high-stakes test, such as a test required for graduation with a standard diploma, can increase the likelihood that low achievers will drop out of school. We already know that nearly 30 percent of students with learning disabilities drop out of school (compared to 11% of the general student population), and we know that dropping out of school is associated with poor life outcomes in regard to postsecondary education and employment.

    Some students with disabilities may even be encouraged to leave school and pursue alternative routes such as the General Educational Development (GED) exam. Such students are known as "push outs." Fortunately, the No Child Left Behind Act requires schools to show improved high school graduation rates, a requirement that will help to prevent such activity.

  • Awarding of alternative high school diplomas or certificates
    To compensate students with disabilities who fail high school graduation tests, many states are developing one or more alternative diplomas and certificates. These include nonstandard diplomas such as IEP diplomas, certificates of completion, certificates of attendance, and modified diplomas. There is little research on the value of such alternative diplomas and certificates. Many may not be accepted by colleges and universities. Meanwhile, the existence of such alternatives provides the opportunity for students with learning disabilities to be "tracked" into high school course work that will not provide the necessary credits for a standard diploma, nor provide the student access to the subject matter of graduation tests. Parents need to be well informed regarding the implications of any nonstandard diplomas and should be sure that they are involved in decisions regarding the high school diploma track of their student with LD.

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"