Including All Students in State and District Assessments
Assessments for accountability are required by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, and participation in assessments, with accommodations as necessary, is required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1997. The purpose of these assessments is to show the progress of a school toward proficiency on state academic content standards. In order to give an accurate picture of the achievement of students in a school, all of the students need to have an opportunity to take the tests and all of their scores need to count. In the past, some schools reported doing very well, only to find that they just tested a small percentage of their highest achieving students! More importantly, a picture of the assessment results for all of the students in a school shows where there is strength and where improvement is needed. An emphasis on improvement might not take place without illuminating where students are having the most difficulty.
For students with disabilities to be successful on these assessments, the first thing they need is instruction in the standards-based content covered by the assessments. Assuming they have had this instruction, with support provided through special education services and strategies described in the instruction part of this website, they need an opportunity to show what they have learned on a test - with access that is equal to the access provided to students without disabilities. For some students, this access can be increased through the use of assessment accommodations.
Defining Assessment Accommodations
One of the ways to make sure students can show what they know on tests (one kind of assessment) is by using testing accommodations. Accommodations are changes in the way a student takes a test, without changing the actual test itself. Using accommodations can be complicated - the goal is to find a balance that gives students equal access to the test, but does not make the test content easier. For example, allowing a student to mark answers to multiple choice test questions in the test booklet rather than on a separate answer sheet may make the test more accessible to that student but does not make the content any easier. On the other hand, using any of the accommodations like those commonly seen on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire"- call a friend (get help), or cut out 2 of the answers (change the test), definitely make a test easier and do not really give students an equal chance to show what they know.
Accommodations are typically categorized according to whether they are changes in presentation (e.g., directions or items read aloud), response (e.g., mark answer in the test booklet), setting (e.g., use of a study carrel), or timing/scheduling (e.g., frequent breaks). Here is a brief description of each of these categories. Clicking on any of the titles in the next section will open a page of more detailed information.
- Presentation Accommodations allow students to access test directions or content in ways that do not require them to visually decode standard print. Students with print disabilities (defined as an inability to visually decode standard print because of a physical, sensory, or cognitive disability) may require alternate visual, tactile, or auditory formats.
- Response Accommodations allow students to record responses to test questions in alternate ways or to solve or organize a response using some type of material or device.
- Timing/Scheduling Accommodations change the allowable length of testing time and may also change the way the time is organized.
- Setting Accommodations change the location in which an assessment is given or the conditions of the assessment setting.
Classifying Accommodations as "Okay" or "Not Okay"
When choosing assessment accommodations with a particular student, it is important to look at state policy to determine whether the accommodations are considered "okay" or "not okay" to use. Distinctions between "okay" and "not okay" accommodations terminology has really evolved over time. In state policies, a variety of terms are used to indicate whether a change in test materials or procedures is considered to be "okay" or "not okay" - i.e., to produce "valid" or "not valid" scores. "Not okay" accommodations are commonly referred to as modifications, adaptations, alterations, and nonstandard, nonallowable, or nonapproved accommodations (Thurlow & Wiener, 2000). The terminology can be confusing and terms may have different meanings in various contexts.
For many years, terminology used to indicate testing changes has been variable from one place to the next and often contradictory in meaning. An analysis of the terminology used in 2001 policies to distinguish between test changes that produce "okay" and "not okay" scores reveals that terminology is changing (Thurlow, Lazarus, Thompson, & Robey, 2002). For example, only one state continues to use the term "modification" to indicate a test change that produces valid scores. Most states' policies distinguish between test changes that are viewed as "okay" and those that are viewed as "not okay." The terms that states used to reflect this distinction include:
- accommodation vs. modification
- allowed vs. not allowed
- standard vs. non-standard
- permitted/permissible vs. not permitted/non-permissible
- reportable vs. not reportable
Familiarity with state policy on accommodations is essential. It is important to know that some accommodations are considered nonstandard or nonallowable. These kinds of accommodations may have consequences attached. For example, in some states, using a "not okay" accommodation results in a test score that is not counted, or it might even affect the kind of diploma that is awarded (if the test counts toward earning a diploma). Each state has guidelines for the use of accommodations for accountability assessments. To find the guidelines for your state, click here: National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) and then click on the name of your state.
You may need to contact someone in the assessment unit of your state education department to check on the use of a particularly unique accommodation. Obtaining this information may be the job of your school or district assessment administrator. Take the time to find out what your state considers valid or "okay" - it may be different from what you think, and you could be taking the chance of having a student's score not count.
Some accommodations are really conditions that are available to everyone and not questioned. For example, any student can wear eyeglasses or hearing aids while taking a test.
The size of a group in which a student is tested also varies from the school's auditorium, cafeteria, or library to a small classroom or even a study carrel.
On the other hand, some changes are rarely or never considered "okay." For example, helping students in any way does not give a true picture of what students know. Helping includes coaching, editing student work, answering questions, or giving cues in any way, including gestures, facial expressions, or encouragement to change an answer. It is important to simply encourage students to do their best. Changing the content of a test to make it easier for students who have not learned the content being tested also invalidates a test, especially if the test is designed to be used for accountability. These changes might include allowing a student to answer fewer questions, reducing the number of responses required, or changing the content by paraphrasing or offering additional information.
Using Accommodations in the Classroom
Students need to have opportunities to learn to use accommodations in classroom settings, and they also need to be able to practice taking tests using accommodations. The accommodations described in this section also apply to classroom tests. The testing conditions for classroom tests should be as close as possible to those of district or state testing situations to increase a student's comfort level and allow for the best possible performance. Once again, the goal of accommodations is not to make a test easier, it is simply to improve access, giving students a better opportunity to show what they know and can do. There is a whole section in the instructional area of this website devoted to instructional accommodations.
Deciding Which Accommodations to Use
Decisions about which accommodations to use are very individualized and should be made for each student by the student's IEP team. That's why it is vital for every member of each student's IEP team to be well informed about accommodations for both assessment and instruction.
One of the first steps in deciding which assessment accommodations to use involves consideration of the accommodations used by a student for classroom instruction. Consider accommodations in light of each test and how a student's disability may interfere with access. It is important to get each student's input about familiar and comfortable accommodations and ask what would be most helpful during testing. Teachers and other members of each student's IEP team should have information about the way the student learns best and types of accommodations that the student has used in the classroom on assignments and during previous testing. If this information is not readily available, it may be helpful to work with a student prior to his or her IEP meeting and try out a variety of accommodations in the classroom in order to figure out what works well.
The tendency may be to recommend the use of a variety of accommodations, with the assumption that "the more accommodations, the better, " or "at least something will help" a student to do his or her best. Unfortunately, this hit or miss approach does not necessarily enhance a student's access to a test. Every student with a disability does not need an accommodation, nor do all students with the same disability need the same accommodations. For example, students with low vision may simply wear glasses or contact lenses, or use a hand held magnifier, computerized magnification, several different sizes of large print, Braille, or audio presentation. A student with difficulty reading print because of a learning disability may use no accommodation, a human reader, a cassette tape or compact disc, or a screen reader. The ultimate decision about whether to use an accommodation rests on each student and his or her preferences and abilities. The ultimate effectiveness of the use of an accommodation depends on a student's familiarity and opportunity to practice using it in everyday life - in the classroom, at home, and in the community.
Including Students in the Decision Making Process
Students can play a significant role, with the support of their IEP teams, in choosing and using test accommodations. A study conducted by the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) sheds light on student understanding of high stakes testing and accommodations. Nearly 100 high school students with learning disabilities were interviewed about their participation in state tests that they have to pass in order to graduate from high school (Thompson, Thurlow, & Walz, 2000). Most of the students were in grades 10 - 12 and ages 15 - 18. NCEO wanted to know whether the students had taken the state tests and whether they had passed tests in Reading, Math, and Writing. Students were also asked what accommodations they used for statewide testing, in their daily classes, and what accommodations they thought might be most helpful to them in the future. Some of the findings are described below:
- Ninety percent of the students interviewed knew whether they had taken the state tests.
- Most students knew whether they had passed each test.
- About three quarters of the students tested said that they had used accommodations; only two students did not know what accommodations were.
- Older students (grades 11-12) were more likely to use accommodations than younger students (grades 9-10).
- Most students used three or fewer accommodations, including extended time, testing in a separate room in a small group, having directions repeated, and reviewing test directions in advance.
- Many of the accommodations students used for testing were also used in daily classroom activities, including extended time, working in a small group or in a separate room, having tests read aloud, and having directions repeated.
- Other classroom accommodations students used that would not work for tests included books on tape, reduced amounts of reading, note taker, copy notes and/or directions from chalkboard or overheads.
- About two thirds of the students were able to list accommodations that would be helpful to them in their future adult lives. The other third either did not know what would be helpful, or thought they probably would not need accommodations in the future.
The results of this study show that students can have an understanding of accommodations and underscore the importance of student participation in the decision making process. Students can provide information to choose accommodations that can help them do their best. In addition, it is important for students to understand the purpose of each test they take and the consequences of their scores, especially if the test is used to determine graduation status.
For students with disabilities, understanding their disabilities and learning self-advocacy strategies are critical for success in school. Some students have had limited experience expressing personal preferences and advocating for themselves. Speaking out about their preferences, particularly in the presence of "authority figures," may be a new role for students, one for which they need guidance and feedback. Teachers can play a key role in working with students to advocate for themselves in the context of choosing accommodations for testing. In addition, these skills can be used throughout a student's daily life, and on into post-secondary education, career, and community life.
Documenting Accommodations on a Student's IEP
Once a decision has been made about which accommodations will be used during testing, it is important to document the process and the accommodations. IDEA requires that accommodations used by students on assessments be documented on each student's Individualized Education Program (IEP). The law says:
"Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) must include a statement of any individual modifications in the administration of state or district wide assessments of student achievement that are needed for the student to participate in such assessments." 34 CFR 300.347 (a)(5)(i)
Documenting Accommodations on a Student's 504 Accommodations Plan
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires public schools to provide accommodations to students with disabilities even if they do not qualify for special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The definition of a disability under Section 504 is much broader than the definition under the IDEA. All IDEA students are also covered by Section 504, but not all Section 504 students are eligible for services under IDEA. Section 504 states:
No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States... shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance. (29 U.S.C. 794)
Here are examples of students who may receive assessment accommodations based on their 504 accommodations plan:
- students with communicable diseases (i.e., hepatitis),
- students with temporary disabilities from accidents who may need short term hospitalization or homebound recovery,
- students with allergies or asthma,
- students who are drug addicted or alcoholic, as long as they are not currently using illegal drugs,
- students with environmental illnesses, and
- students with attention difficulties.
Following Through on Test Day
On the day of a test, teachers or other members of a student's IEP team can make sure the test administrator (sometimes called a proctor) knows what accommodations a student will be using. For example, the proctor needs to know whether a student will be allowed extra time to complete the test. In addition, the proctor needs to know specifically how to implement each accommodation. For example, when the proctor states, "Time is up, put your pencils down and leave the room," there must be a plan for how a student receiving extra time can continue working. One state did a study of assessment accommodation implementation. They looked at what students had listed on their IEPs and then researchers visited schools on test day to see what accommodations the students actually received. They found that the room a student was tested in was more likely to determine which accommodations he or she received than what was listed on the IEP. For example, if a student was in a room where a teacher decided to read the test to the group, then the student received a read-aloud accommodation, or if the student was in a room where a teacher decided that all students would read the test to themselves, no read-aloud accommodations were provided. It did not appear that the test administrators had seen any of the students' IEPs. Here is a summary of what to avoid:
- Teachers and other test administrators making "on the spot" decisions about what accommodations a student needs for testing,
- Giving an accommodation to everyone in a room because of convenience, and
- Not giving an individual an accommodation because he or she is the only one in the room who needs it.
Schools need to plan for who will need what accommodation and how each accommodation will be implemented and monitored on test day. Some schools use an accommodation request form that is completed by a student's IEP team. Information about all students can be compiled on a data base that has each student's name, accommodations needed, and logistics for providing the accommodation on test day.
Increasing Access in Other Ways
There are other important ways to increase a student's access to assessments. These include teaching students test taking strategies, designing tests that are more accessible to a greater population of students, making sure that all students have opportunities to learn the content that is being assessed, and motivating students to do their best.
Test Taking Strategies
Sometimes improving a student's test-taking skills will help reduce the need for accommodations. For example, students need to learn strategies for answering objective and subjective test questions, and tips like skimming a test before beginning work, marking unknown questions and returning to them, and identifying key words.
Universally designed assessments
We are learning to think more carefully about the design of tests and test items from the beginning to be sure that they can be accessed by today's diverse test participants. In using the term "universal design" we have sought to produce "optimal standard assessment conditions". With this is mind, we have identified things that the test developers must do, such as ensure that all item tryouts and field testing involves an inclusive assessment population, and established legibility and graphics guidelines are followed. Primarily, however, we have identified things that item developers must keep in mind as they develop items and put them together (Thompson & Thurlow, 2002). These apply to all kinds of tests and include:
- Inclusive assessment population - Think about all students who will participate in the assessment when developing items. Ideally, examinees would be afforded equal opportunity to prepare for a test.
- Precisely defined test content - Define what is to be tested so that irrelevant cognitive, sensory, emotional, and physical barriers can be removed.
- Accessible, non-biased items - Build accessibility into items from the beginning, and use bias review teams to ensure that quality is retained in all items.
- Amenable to accommodations - Test design facilitates the use of needed accommodations (e.g., all items can be brailled).
- Simple, clear, and intuitive instructions and procedures - Making sure that students are easily able to follow the directions for taking a test.
- Maximum readability and comprehensibility - Using, for example, plain language strategies and other approaches that reduce ambiguity and increase understandability.
- Maximum legibility - Characteristics that ensure easy decipherability are applied to text, tables, figures and illustrations, and response formats.
Several states are working toward the administration of state tests via computer. There are many important considerations to keep in mind in the development and administration of computer-based assessments. These considerations are described for each accommodation in a report by the National Center on Educational Outcomes.
Opportunities to learn the content assessed
Students who have not learned the material on a test will not be helped by accommodations, test-taking strategies, or universally designed assessments. There are many wonderful sections on this website designed to help students access and achieve academic content standards.
Students need to be clear about the purpose and importance of a test and be motivated to do their best. A high school principal was recently heard bemoaning the fact that the students knew the state tests didn't count for anything for them personally and responded by just filling in the bubbles on the answer sheet without really trying. Several students also said that on the reading test, they did not bother to read the passages, they just read the questions and made a feeble attempt to answer them. Accommodations would not have helped these students. The school administration had sent the message to the students that the tests and the laws requiring them were not important.
Finding Research on Accommodations
There are many types of accommodations, and there is a need for research to help guide us in making better decisions about accommodations used for students with disabilities. Fortunately, research is accumulating. Still, most decisions continue to be made on the basis of, experience, thoughtful consideration, and expert judgment. The National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) website provides information about accommodation policies and use nationwide. In addition, NCEO offers a review of accommodation research with a searchable database.
The National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) summarized findings from research on the effects of accommodations through the study of 46 empirical research studies on accommodations published from 1999 through 2001 (Thompson, Blount, & Thurlow, 2002). Three accommodations showed a positive effect on student test scores across at least four studies: computer administration, oral presentation, and extended time (see the table below). However, additional studies on each of these accommodations also found no significant effect on scores or alterations in item comparability.
Positive Effect on Scores
No Effect on Scores
Comparability Not Altered
Burk (1999); Calhoon et al. (2000);
Russell & Plati (2000);
Brown & Augustine (2001);
Haaf et al. (1999); Hollenbeck et al. (1999a)
Helwig et al. (2000); Hollenbeck et al. (1999b)
Oral Presentation (read aloud)
Fuchs et al. (2000a);
Fuchs et al. (2000b);
Helwig et al. (1999);
Johnson et al. (2000);
Meloy et al. (2000);
Kosciolek & Ysseldyke (2000)
Barton & Huynh (2000); Bielinski et al. (2001)
Pomplun & Omar (2000)
DiCerbo et al. (2001);
Huesman & Frisbie (2000);
Schulte et al. (2001);
Walz et al. (2000)
Hollenbeck et al. (2000)
Type of Calculator
Hanson et al. (2001)
Tindal et al. (2000)
Johnson et al. (2001)
Chiu & Pearson (1999);
Elliott et al. (2001)
McKevitt (2000) McKevitt et al. (1999) (2000)
Developed by: Sandra J. Thompson, Ph.D., Research Associate, National Center on Educational Outcomes, University of Minnesota