The common-core tests being developed by two state coalitions offer the promise of more inclusion and self-sufficiency for students with special needs and for English-language learners. At the same time, some acutely different decisions each group has made on test administration and accessibility features mean the testing experience for students in those special populations will vary widely depending on the state they call home.
Most notably, the use of glossaries and the often-controversial topic of read-aloud accommodations get dissimilar treatment by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.
Both state groups are now in the midst of field-testing their new exams aligned with the Common Core State Standards. Smarter Balanced will only permit the read-aloud accommodation, also known as text-to-speech, for the English/language arts test to students in grade 6 and above, while PARCC will allow it at any grade level, as deemed necessary by a student’s special education team, but with a flag on the student’s report.
“These aren’t easy decisions, especially with text-to-speech,” said Magda Chia, the director of underrepresented students for Smarter Balanced.
The two consortia also part company on providing translations of the test into other languages.
The differing decisions highlight that, notwithstanding the technological advances the two consortia are making in the assessment of special populations, accommodations policies remain contested among states, researchers, and test creators. And to that extent, the consortia stand to add fuel to the ongoing debate rather than define conclusive best practices for testing.
Meanwhile, many educators and observers will be keeping a close eye on the PARCC and Smarter Balanced field-testing—which ends in early June—with special attention to whether the technology works as intended.
The use of computer-based assessments will allow for a more inclusive testing environment than has previously been available with paper-based tests, say representatives from both PARCC and Smarter Balanced. In the past, students with disabilities and English-learners often needed to take their assessments in separate small-group or one-on-one settings with a dedicated test administrator. Now, students who need portions of the test read to them can simply put on headphones. And students who use calculators will not need to have them on their desks for the math assessment. The tool will be available on-screen.
“This is really going to be very different than what the entire field of education has been used to and what students have been used to,” said Kimberly Hymes, the senior director for policy and advocacy at the Arlington, Va.-based Council for Exceptional Children. “It presents a different approach—and one we think holds a lot of promise for including students with disabilities in a more meaningful way in the assessment system.”
Both groups’ tests will also have embedded universal-design tools, meaning any student can zoom in, highlight parts of the test, cross out or mask answers, use an extra notepad, or even spell-check within the computer-based testing platform. Many of those tools were previously only available to students with an individualized education program, or IEP, or a Section 504 plan. (Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in schools receiving federal funds.) And with paper-based tests, the supports often looked different depending on what the teacher had on hand.
Both the PARCC and Smarter Balanced tests will also provide videos with American Sign Language for deaf students, calculators for items not testing mathematics fluency, and Braille options on portions of the test for blind students, among other supports.
“We want this to be as seamless as possible for students,” said Ms. Chia of Smarter Balanced. “A student using text-to-speech may be sitting next to a student who’s never heard of text-to-speech.”
Another support that was previously available only for special populations but is now available to all students is an English glossary. Within the testing platform, students can click on words they don’t understand to get an alternate word or definition.
“We’re basically realizing that language demands are especially concerning for language learners, but also concerns for all students. All students have to struggle to explain the reasoning of others,” which the common standards require, said Kenji Hakuta, a Stanford University education professor.
Robert Linquanti, the project director for English-learner evaluation and accountability support at WestEd, a San Francisco-based research group, and who serves on a Smarter Balanced English-learner committee, said making the tools universal can reduce the stigma attached to them.
“I think it’s actually paradigm shifting,” he said. “They’re signaling to the field as they’re making these technological innovations. They’re saying … all students can benefit from this.”
For the tools to work, students—and teachers—will need practice using them. In fact, some experts say that without sufficient training, the tools could become a source of confusion or a distraction for test-takers.
Mr. Linquanti said he also worries that the digital tools could serve to highlight the digital divide between students in low-income communities and their more-affluent peers. These tools “assume a certain level of tech savviness,” he said.
‘Nice, But Not Enough’
While PARCC and Smarter Balanced are doing many things similarly, their policies differ significantly when it comes to arguably the most controversial and complicated accommodation of all: reading aloud to students. Any student who needs it can have test instructions or math items read to them, but use of the read-aloud option on the English/language arts tests is a sticky matter. To maintain the validity of a test score, experts agree, an accommodation must not change what is being tested.
“The content people believe reading is reading with the eyes,” said Tamara Reavis, PARCC’s senior adviser for assessment, accessibility, and equity. “The accessibility folks believe reading can be several different modes.”
Smarter Balanced has decided to prohibit any students in grades 3-5 from using the read-aloud accommodation. The group explains that the goal of the reading tests in those grades is to see whether a student can decode.
Students in grade 6 and higher will have access to the accommodation if the team that determined the individualized education program for a given student finds it necessary, because Smarter Balanced has decided the goal at those grades is to measure comprehension. Blind students can use Braille for reading, but neither they nor students with visual impairments can have the text read to them.
“It’s nice, but not enough,” said Laura W. Kaloi, an advocate for students with disabilities, of the Smarter Balanced read-aloud decision. Ms. Kaloi, the vice president of policy and development at Washington Partners, a consulting group, argues that 4th and 5th graders also need the opportunity to demonstrate their comprehension skills even if they struggle with decoding. “I don’t mean to split hairs, but those years make a difference.”
PARCC, on the other hand, will allow a student in any grade access to text-to-speech during the English/language arts exam if it’s required by his or her IEP. But if a student uses that accommodation, score reports will contain a notation stating that “no claims should be inferred regarding the student’s ability to demonstrate foundational reading skills (i.e., decoding and fluency).”
According to Ms. Reavis, about 1 percent of students with special needs—excluding those who will take the alternative assessments—will use that accommodation, most of whom have a physical disability that inhibits their reading.
“We give them the opportunity to show their analytical skills, comprehension skills, synthesis skills,” she said. The notation is necessary, she added, because the PARCC testing blueprint requires students to read and comprehend texts independently.
That notation has sparked outrage among some special education advocates, including Ms. Hymes of the Council for Exceptional Children, who called it unnecessary and “alarming.”
She said, “When an assessment comes in and says that you can use that accommodation given to you to ensure that you can access material like any other student, and then it says no claims can be made about your reading skills, that undermines the intention of the accommodation.”
Accommodations are designed not to give students a leg up, Ms. Hymes said, but to “level the playing field.”
Ms. Reavis of PARCC acknowledged that the consortium has “gotten pushback on both sides.” Students who use the accommodation “are still going to get a college- and career-readiness score,” she said. “We’re simply saying we can’t tell you by any means if this student can decode. We’re open to revising that language” after the field-testing data come in.
The two testing consortia have some fundamental differences in the way they make the tests accessible for English-language learners as well.
Both provide English glossaries to all students. Smarter Balanced will also have computer-based glossaries in Arabic, Cantonese, Filipino, Korean, Mandarin, Punjabi, Russian, Spanish, Ukrainian, and Vietnamese. For the operational test, students will have the option to hear the glossary terms read aloud.
PARCC, however, will not have computer-based glossaries available in other languages. The group will allow students to use paper-based glossaries.
Some ELL experts are concerned about that.
“Non-embedded tools are messy things because they depend on the site and how they’re applied,” said Mr. Linquanti.
Joanne Urrutia, a Washington-based education consultant and a former deputy director of the office of English-language acquisition for the U.S. Department of Education, said that for the most part, the paper glossaries, which schools have long used for testing, are “useless.” Looking up words by hand is “time consuming, and the words aren’t in there,” she said.
The paper glossaries are particularly concerning now because the standards stress academic language, “and the level of the text that I’m assuming will be in these reading passages is going to a be lot higher,” she said.
“I feel very comfortable paper-based word-to-word dictionaries will be appropriate for students because it’s what’s used in their everyday instruction,” said Ms. Reavis. “Ideally, yes, we’d have translations online, and we’re looking at adding that on in the future.”
In the end, the decision came down to “just technology and time,” Ms. Reavis said.
In terms of more comprehensive translations, Smarter Balanced will also offer states a full translation of the math assessment into Spanish.
Jamal Abedi, an education professor at the University of California, Davis, who advises the Smarter Balanced consortium on accommodations for English-learners, said the group will not do translations in more languages for now “because of budget and implementation-feasibility issues.” PARCC states will have the option to request and pay for a Spanish translation, but it will not be provided upfront.
“Some states are English-only, some are required to give assessments in Spanish,” said Ms. Reavis of PARCC. “The policies and legislation are all over the place, so truly it should be a state decision.”
As for English-learner supports, compared with Smarter Balanced, “PARCC is definitely more conventional in their approach,” said Mr. Hakuta, who has served on a PARCC committee looking at accommodations.