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The Trouble With High-Stakes Testing

Students with Disabilities-High Stake Tests

Q&A With Sid Wolinsky, Disability Rights Advocate

Sid Wolinsky is the founder of Disability Rights Advocates (DRA) and is now its Director of Litigation. Headquartered in Oakland, California, DRA is a national and international nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting and advancing the civil rights of people with disabilities. In this article, Mr. Wolinsky discusses high stakes tests, the problems they present for students with LD, and what schools can do to make sure these tests are administered fairly. Could you please explain the term “high-stakes testing”?
“High stakes testing” is something of a general term. At DRA, we take high stakes testing to mean testing that has serious consequences for the individual taking the test. That’s the most common definition. Some examples of high stakes tests would be one where, if you didn’t pass, you wouldn’t be allowed to advance to the next grade, or where you wouldn’t be allowed to graduate or wouldn’t get advanced placement. The term “high stakes test” also includes most of the standardized national tests, such as the SAT, the Graduate Record Exam, the MCATs, any test that has a consequence regarding admissions, graduation, or promotion.

What are some of the biggest problems high stakes tests pose for students with learning disabilities?
For many students with learning disabilities, with or without accommodations, standardized tests are among the worst means of assessing their abilities. Given the individual learning styles of students with LD, at DRA we feel these high stakes tests pose considerable danger to a student. A student’s performance on a high stakes test has serious consequences, but we’ve found that these tests usually don’t measure the student’s capabilities in a realistic way. Often, standardized tests are poorly devised and give very little consideration to how valid an assessment they provide of students with LD. So that’s the first problem.

Secondly, since students with disabilities often perform poorly on these tests when compared to the mainstream population, there is a terrible temptation on the part of teachers and administrators to neglect them. Students who are seen as possibly bringing down the overall average for these exams are sometimes even encouraged not to take them. And these attitudes become self-fulfilling prophecies, students who are expected to fail usually do, self-esteem suffers and they often end up eventually dropping out of school as a result.

What are some of the changes that need to be made to ensure these tests are administered fairly and how has DRA has been working to bring these changes about?
There are safeguards already in place and DRA has been trying to make sure these safeguards are respected. They became law in 1997 as amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), with the most important of them being:

  • That students with disabilities who take these tests are entitled to reasonable accommodations;
  • For those students whose needs cannot be addressed through reasonable accommodations and who, for one reason or another, are disadvantaged by the very nature of the standardized test format, that they be provided with an alternate method of assessing their abilities; and
  • The test must be validated, in other words, students cannot be tested on material they have not been taught. And this requirement covers mainstream students, as well as special needs students.

This sounds like plain common sense, but we’ve been finding that many of these test requirements are instituted by politicians trying to show that they are doing something to improve education. The tests are often put into place very hastily, without consideration for the curriculum required to teach the material being tested. Students with LD also have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and these curriculums are often different from the mainstream curriculum. And standardized tests rarely take this fact into account either.

Could you tell us, more specifically, about some of the disability rights cases you and DRA have litigated?
We've litigated three major cases so far, involving high stakes exit exams for high school students in California, Oregon and, most recently, in Alaska.

In Oregon, the first suit, we persuaded the state to agree to the appointment of a “Blue Ribbon” panel, a group of national experts on both testing and learning disabilities. This panel addressed the problems surrounding standardized testing in the Oregon school system and made a report that served as both a roadmap to fixing the problems there and in other states as well.

The panel ultimately published a report that was not only a critique of high stakes testing, but that provided specific recommendations to fix the problems they found. The recommendations included devising an alternative means of assessment, called a juried assessment, where a student is judged on the body of work they've completed and not the results of one test. The state of Oregon also agreed to put together an appeals process to resolve grievances, and also agreed to allow us to monitor the system. By the way, the panel’s report, entitled Do No Harm.

What can a parent do, if they have a child with a learning disability, to ensure fairness in any high stakes test administration?
A parent needs to get involved even more than usual with the IEP process, especially if their child is at the high school level. They have to make sure they know the accommodations that will work best for their child and push for those accommodations.

In every school district we’ve been involved with, we've discovered profound misunderstandings about the accommodations a student is entitled to. For example, a parent might say, “My child needs a read-aloud option,” and the school will refuse to provide it, though the parent might find out later that it’s a completely permissible accommodation. A parent can’t necessarily take the word of even the most well-meaning administrator at face value. They have to, first of all, know what their child needs and what works for them, and then they really have to push for it.

View the Do No Harm report.

For more information, go to www.dralegal.org.