Testing Accommodations—5 ways to help students “show what they know”

by Mary Pembleton

Smiling girl with a laptop

When assessment season rolls around, it brings with it many challenges. Not least among them is managing the logistics of testing accommodations for students with disabilities.

Staff who are responsible for implementing testing accommodations must often contend with complex processes for accessing accommodations.

These processes can be stressful for students and often add to their cognitive load as they navigate systems that are dissimilar to the day-to-day accommodations they typically use. And it can be tough to know exactly how to improve student accessibility during testing.

Paul Auger, Assistive Technology Specialist at The Public Schools of Brookline in Brookline, MA recalls issues with past processes.

If a student had a word prediction accommodation Brookline staff would set up two separate computers: one with the assessment itself, and another where the student could type answers to test questions into a Google Doc using their word prediction.

Once they had finished answering a question, an administrator had to transfer the student’s answer into the test by typing it verbatim.

Paul says:

“This was hard for students with tracking issues because they had to move from one computer to get the question to the other computer to answer, and they would lose track of the question. It was a mess. And it required resources: we had to find two computers and a space for testing.”

But Brookline is able to do things differently now.

Read on to discover how.

But first:

What are testing accommodations?

Simply put, testing accommodations are measures put in place to ensure a student can accurately demonstrate their knowledge of what they are being tested on. They are meant to address barriers to a student’s ability to show what they know.

For example, a student with dyslexia who is being tested on reading comprehension may use text-to-speech to accommodate fluency and decoding challenges.

This is because the objective isn’t to test their ability to decode (which may be hindered by dyslexia), but their ability to understand the reading material provided. So, in this case, listening to passages read aloud helps isolate the skill being tested (reading comprehension) so fluency or decoding doesn’t adversely affect the testing construct.

Extra time, speech-to-text, word prediction, and screen-reading technology are common accommodations that support learners with disabilities during testing.

Animation shows the Co:Writer Neuron Word Prediction tool

It’s super encouraging that, in general, access to testing accommodations is continuously improving. State standardized tests are now digital, for example, and most have many accommodations embedded into the test, including read-aloud capabilities.

Other types of embedded accommodations are also gaining traction. For example, a recent policy change in Massachusetts means that school districts like Brookline no longer have to supply two separate devices to students with word prediction accommodations. And that means students with disabilities can take their assessments alongside their peers, and staff no longer have to manually transfer a student’s answers into the test.

This is because in Massachusetts and an increasing number of other states, students who qualify for a word-prediction accommodation can use Co:Writer’s word-prediction embedded right into the test, within kiosk mode.

Paul says:

“Now that it’s changed I love it. In Massachusetts, the only thing we need to do to give students access to their Co:Writer accommodations is make sure they click on the link.”

Interoperable, embedded word prediction is a free service offered by Don Johnston Incorporated (through Co:Writer) and Texthelp (through Read&Write).

Texthelp & Don Johnston Logos

Want to help make the testing accommodation experience easier and more accessible for your students and staff? Consider trying the following:

1. Be a mythbuster.

Unfortunately, the myth that accommodations are cheating or offer unfair advantages is a persistent one.

But accommodations for students who need them are as essential to their educational experience as glasses are to a visually impaired student.

Glasses allow visually impaired learners to be able to read their reading and writing, see the board, and participate fully in class.

It’s a similar situation with assistive technology: students with learning differences that interfere with writing, like dysgraphia, often use specialized word prediction tools like Co:Writer to complete assignments.

Dysgraphia impacts not only handwriting, but processes in the brain that allow people to translate their thoughts into writing. Specialized word prediction technology helps connect their thoughts to the page.

For students who rely on accommodations in their daily life, it’s super important that they also have access to the same tools on their assessment.

For students with learning disabilities that impact reading like dyslexia, text-to-speech tools like Snap&Read allow them to access curriculum content. Data gathered from the accommodations screening tool uPAR shows that 60% of students reading below grade level can comprehend at or above grade level with an accommodation.

Infographic uPAR specific user data example

Helping spread the word in your school and greater community can help bust some of the misconceptions and stigmas associated with accommodations.

Jan McSorley, VP of Accessibility at Pearson’s Psychometrics and Testing Services division agrees:

“I think that there’s still a need for awareness raising about disabilities and evaluating assistive technologies and about how people who rely on assistive technologies, learn and complete their work.”

You can even start by sharing this article on your social media

2. Consider physical needs & the environment.

Smiling kid with down syndrome using laptop

Addressing physical needs first and foremost sets learners up for a successful test-taking experience and ensures that they can do their best work with their accommodations.

Reducing noise distractions, thinking through all of the tools and equipment that supports each student on a daily basis, and making sure students aren’t too hot or too cold can help.

For example, Jan McSorley recalls a situation from her former work as an assistive technology specialist where a student’s physical need was accidentally missed:

“I was supporting a student who had paralysis on the left side of his body. And on a normal school day, he had a specialized chair that helped keep him balanced so he could concentrate on his schoolwork.”

“On the day of testing, I went in to observe and he didn’t have his chair. He was bubbling in answers without reading the question because all of his effort was going into trying to pull himself up in the chair.”

“It was just a simple oversight, and it wasn’t done out of malice. It was only that nobody really thought through the fact that we need to make sure he’s got exactly the same setup that he has instructionally so that we can measure his knowledge.”

This example can point back to the importance of maintaining other accommodations that students rely on in their daily lives during testing, such as assistive technology.

3. Establish continuity of tools.

What technology tools do your individual students use on a daily basis? Is there a way to make those same tools available on the assessment, within your specific state’s requirements? If a student is familiar with a specific technology, is there a way to provide that same technology on the test?

For example, both Co:Writer and Read&Write offer word prediction in Pearson’s TestNav and other state assessments, in states where policy allows it. Features are automatically limited to conform to state policies.

Animation demonstrates Co:Writer word prediction

Discover how Co:Writer’s specialized word prediction helps struggling writers get the right words onto the page

Choosing the option that students are already familiar with will better help support learners demonstrate their knowledge.

Jan McSorley says:

“If we don’t have a setup that students are experiencing instructionally we’re not going to measure their knowledge. We’re going to measure their ability to figure out a new system. We’re going to measure their ability to work around their disability, and we’re not going to get a true measure of what they know.”

4. Share stories with policymakers.

Jan notes that sharing stories about students with disabilities with policymakers is helpful. Unless someone has firsthand experience, it’s impossible to fully understand the difference various accommodations can make.

“I think it’s super important that special education teachers feel empowered to tell stories about their students. Because without those examples, presented in a very professional, legal, and factual manner it’s difficult for policymakers to really understand the impact of what they’re putting into place.”

“Unintended bias is never an intentional thing—it tends to come from lack of exposure to the use case.”

5. Practice test taking with accommodations in place.

Practice tests help students know what to expect and practice using their accommodations in a situation that may not be familiar to them.

Jamie Rainwater with student

Paul says:

“Massachusetts has online practice tests where students can practice using their accommodations, and I’m able to sit with the kids and really reinforce test taking skills.”

Your students may benefit from doing the same.

Embedded accommodations make for a simpler test-taking experience, which also means test scores more accurately reflect student knowledge. With most students using one-to-one Chromebooks during assessments, many accommodations are now built-in, including text-to-speech.

Test-taking with accommodations in hand better represents how students use accommodations to access learning throughout the year (we don’t take students’ glasses away when taking a test!).

Now more states are adding additional accommodations, and Illinois has become the newest state that allows embedded word prediction for the very first time in 2022, joining Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Mexico in streamlining writing accommodations for test-takers.

Paul from Brookline told us that using embedded word prediction made things easier for students and personnel alike.

While we’re moving ever closer to an environment where embedded accommodations are standard for learners with disabilities, it takes all of our voices to work on getting us there.

Still have questions about testing accommodations?

Join Ruth Ziolkowski, OTR, for this engaging on-demand webinar for more information.

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