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.