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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: Are there certain questions that parents of students with LD should ask regarding their state's high-stakes assessment system?

A: Yes! Parents in several states have mobilized in opposition to poorly implemented high-stakes testing systems, resulting in critical changes that benefit students with LD. Given the enormous impact that these assessments can have on a student's life, parents need to fully understand their state's system and its implications.

Parents can use this checklist of essential elements of a fair and nondiscriminatory assessment system as a way to determine if their state's system needs improvement:

LEAD TIME: Has the assessment system and its "stakes" been phased in over a sufficient period of time so that students with LD (who often have not had full access to the curriculum) will not be negatively impacted? Adequate time is generally considered to be 4-6 years.

VALIDITY: Has the assessment system been developed and validated for use with students with disabilities? Frequently, the sample population that is used by test developers to set the average scores does not include students with disabilities nor take into account the use of accommodations.

ALIGNMENT: Has the assessment system been aligned with the state content standards? Are students actually being taught the material they are being tested on?

ACCOMMODATIONS: Do students with disabilities have access to all accommodations that have been used during instruction and testing and are listed in the student's IEP or Section 504 Plan?

RETEST OPPORTUNITIES: Are there multiple opportunities to retake a test?

PARENT INVOLVEMENT: Are parents fully included in the decision-making about a student's participation and the accommodations that will be allowed? Are parents fully informed about the implications of certain accommodations? Are parents fully informed about the implications of any alternative nonstandard diplomas and certificates that the state has developed?

MULTIPLE MEASURES: Are multiple measures of student performance used in the high-stakes decision-making process? Is student performance on course work and course grades, as well as other relevant information about the student's knowledge and skills, taken into consideration?

APPEALS PROCEDURES: Are there procedural safeguards in place to ensure that students are able to contest decisions about accommodations, scores, and decisions made regarding assessments?


Updated January 2010

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"