Helping Students with LD Pass High-Stakes Tests
A growing number of students now take tests that determine whether they will advance to the next grade level. If students do not pass these tests, they may be held back one year, which can damage self-esteem, lead to frustration, and increase their chances of eventually dropping out of school. A growing number of high school students now take exit exams that determine whether they will graduate with a standard diploma. Students who do not pass these exams often find themselves with limited options after high school.
High-stakes tests can have serious consequences for all students, but they pose a particular challenge for students with learning disabilities (LD). Due to their one-size-fits-all format, many parents and educators believe that standardized tests tend to reflect a student's disabilities rather than his or her abilities. With so much at stake, it is critical that students with LD be well prepared and receive the support they need when taking such tests. Parents should not confuse high stakes tests with the tests given by the school to meet the requirements under No Child Left Behind (NCLB). These tests hold states and districts accountable for poor student performance, but do not require states to impose personal accountability on students.
Students with learning disabilities, who have an Individualized Education Program (IEP), are entitled to appropriate accommodations while taking high-stakes tests. Accommodations are changes to testing materials and procedures that can help to "level the playing field." The purpose of accommodations is not to give students with LD an unfair advantage over other students, but rather to assist them in demonstrating what they actually know.
A student with dyslexia, for example, might know the answers on a multiple choice test, but not have enough time to read all of the questions. A reasonable accommodation for this student would be to receive additional time. Depending upon a student's disabilities, accommodations can be made with regard to the setting, timing, or scheduling of the test, how the information is presented, what additional materials can be used, and how the student is allowed to respond. An accommodation could be:
- receiving extended time;
- using a computer with spell-check;
- listening to an adult read the instructions and/or test questions; or
- taking the test in a separate room or with a small group.
How parents can help
Parents should play an important role in helping their children navigate high-stakes tests. It is often up to parents to work constructively with the school to make sure that their children have every opportunity to succeed. Here are some tips for parents:
- Talk early on with your child, your child's teacher, and the IEP team to determine which accommodations your child needs while taking high-stakes tests. (Note: Ideally, accommodations should be the same or similar as classroom instruction. However, some accommodations are only for instruction and cannot be used on state/district tests.)
- Find out if there are any accommodations that your child needs that are not allowed by your state, district, and school during high-stakes testing.
- Make sure that your child's IEP clearly spells out appropriate accommodations for both testing situations and classroom use. (Note: You should clarify whether your child will be permitted to use accommodations for testing that he or she has already been using in the classroom as part of everyday learning.)
- Check to see whether your child has been taught the content and skills on which he or she will be tested. This is important because sometimes students with LD have not had sufficient instruction in the general education curriculum upon which the tests are based.
- Should your child fail a high-stakes test, make sure that there are multiple opportunities to retake it.
- For a small percentage of students with LD, accommodations may not be enough to level the playing field. If you and the IEP team decide that your child needs an alternate form of assessment, work closely with school personnel to determine which type of alternate or modified assessment is best suited for your child.
To learn more about accommodations and alternate assessment options, click here.
The bottom line
No one test can accurately measure all of the skills, knowledge, and abilities of a student. When students with LD take high-stakes tests, they deserve the same opportunities as other students to demonstrate what they know. When parents and schools work together, students with learning disabilities can have the support they need when taking tests that may determine so much about their future.
Note: This article refers to high-stakes tests as measures of individual student performance. Sometimes the term 'high-stakes' is also used to refer to assessments that hold schools, districts, and states accountable for low student performance. To learn more about assessment and accommodation options for tests that hold schools, districts, and states accountable under No Child Left Behind, see the NCLD Parent Advocacy Briefs "Determining Appropriate Assessment Accommodations for Students with Disabilities" and "Understanding Assessment Options for IDEA-eligible Students."