By Candace Cortiella, The Advocacy Institute
Q: What are the barriers to success on high-stakes tests for students with LD?
A: The greatest barriers include:
- Inadequate opportunity to learn
Undoubtedly the largest barrier to success is the lack of exposure to the subject matter and skills tested by large scale assessments. While every state is required to have high academic standards that are the same for every student, we know that many students with disabilities are not yet being taught to those standards. In fact, in a recent survey only 57 percent of special education teachers said they are "very" familiar with their state's academic content for the subjects they teach. The survey also found that only seven states require that the IEPs of students with disabilities address state content standards. Yet another study found that it does not appear that IEP teams "ensure that the curriculum and instruction received by the student through the individual education program (IEP) is aligned with test content and that the student has had adequate opportunity to learn the material covered by the test."
- More restrictive placements
Research on state accountability systems indicates that states with high school graduation tests tend to place students with disabilities in more restrictive settings. The opportunity to learn the subject matter and skills that are aligned to state- and district-wide assessments can be further compromised when students are placed in more restrictive classroom settings, where they will invariably have less access to both the general curriculum and to the general education teachers who are most qualified to teach that curriculum.
- Lack of reasonable accommodations
Federal laws require that students with learning disabilities be provided reasonable accommodations and auxiliary aids and services in order to participate fully in state- and district-wide assessment programs. The National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) says this about accommodations: "Accommodations are changes in testing materials or procedures that enable students to participate in assessments in a way that allows abilities to be assessed rather than disabilities. They are provided to' level the playing field.'Without accommodations, the assessment may not accurately measure the student's knowledge and skills."
The accommodations that a student will need to participate in a state- or district-wide assessment should be determined by the student's IEP team (or Section 504 team) and clearly detailed within the IEP document. Parents should understand the implications of each accommodation, being sure that an accommodation will not invalidate the purpose of the assessment.
Students should have access to the same accommodations on high-stakes tests that they routinely use in classroom instruction and testing. States should not limit accommodations to some predetermined "list." In fact, research shows that increasing unrestricted accommodations increases students with disabilities' participation in state reading and math tests. Still, accommodations for students with learning disabilities continue to be a source of both confusion and contention. Development of policies and procedures regarding accommodations is uneven across states, and legal challenges continue to be brought on behalf of students who are being denied reasonable accommodations on high-stakes tests.
- Inadequate access to remediation
Students who do not pass a high-stakes test should be provided meaningful opportunities for remediation. According to one recent study, the economic costs of helping students with disabilities pass exit exams are typically underestimated and overlooked. Remediation should be targeted to the knowledge and skill deficit reflected in the test performance, not merely on test-taking techniques, since it is well known that scores on a test can increase as students become familiar with the test format without any real improvement in mastery of the subject matter. Students should have adequate opportunities to retake tests once remediation has occurred.
- Over-reliance on a single test score
There is no single measure that can accurately reflect the knowledge and skills of a student. Moreover, students with disabilities perform more poorly on standardized tests than their non-disabled peers, so over-reliance on such test scores has a disproportionately negative impact on students with LD, as well as minority students. While there is evidence that course grades frequently have little correlation to real academic performance, a variety of measures need to be considered when making high-stakes decisions. The testing profession's Joint Standards state that "in elementary and secondary education, a decision or characterization that will have a major impact on a test taker should not automatically be made on the basis of a single test score."