Myrna Mandlawitz​, Esq., 
Learning Disability Association of America Public Policy Director

As new computer based assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards are being field tested through the end of this school year. Test developers will be examining how students with disabilities fared using a variety of accommodations and accessibility features. The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), two consortia charged with assessment design, worked with experts in reading and mathematics, special educators and disability advocates to determine what provisions could be made to accommodate the large majority of students with disabilities while still ensuring test validity. Only students with the most significant cognitive disabilities will take a different set of tests. All accessibility and accommodations features are available to students with disabilities in the SBAC field tests, while PARCC determined additional research was necessary before certain features could be used.

Helpful accomodations

PARCC and SBAC came up with guidelines to assist school districts in determining which testing accommodations students with disabilities should receive. Certain features available to all students are embedded in both sets of assessments, such as changing the font size and using highlighting as students read passages or solve problems. In addition to these tools, students with disabilities can receive other accommodations based on the recommendations of the Individualized Education Program team, school professionals and parents who work together to determine students' special education services and classroom accommodations.

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"Many remain concerned these guidelines as currently written are too restrictive and will prevent certain students with learning disabilities from receiving appropriate accommodations."

One particular accommodation known as text-to-speech or read-aloud provoked serious debate, and for disability advocates this issue still has not been satisfactorily resolved. Commonly used in classroom instruction, this accommodation allows students whose disabilities prevent them from reading printed text to have the material read to them. Both advocates and the test consortia agreed if a specific test question was designed to measure reading decoding skills, this accommodation would not be appropriate. However, advocates supported and continue to support a much broader use of text-to-speech, especially for students who receive this assistance for regular classroom instruction. SBAC decided to allow the accommodation for an estimated 1 to 2 percent of students in grades six to eight and grade 11 where the school team has documented the need. However, text-to-speech will not be available to children in grades three to five, since the developers' reading consultants say its use would compromise what skills are being measured in those grades.

Making the grade

PARCC provides a list of considerations in determining which students should receive text-to-speech, such as whether the student gets regular intensive reading interventions. They agreed with SBAC that only a very small number of students should get this accommodation and that its use is not intended for students reading only somewhat below grade level. PARCC will also note on score reports to parents and schools that students' ability to decode words can't be assumed by the test scores since the accommodation was used.

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Advocates for students with learning disabilities and for students with visual impairments or blindness are monitoring the field tests to determine how these students fare under the guidelines established by the test consortia. They remain concerned these guidelines as currently written are too restrictive and will prevent certain students with learning disabilities from receiving appropriate accommodations. For these advocates, the ultimate goal is to ensure students have the best opportunity to demonstrate what they have learned, improve classroom instruction, and help students with disabilities graduate from high school in greater numbers with strong academic and career skills.