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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 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."

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"