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Smarter Balanced test changes affect California special ed students

Students taking a test.
knittymarie/Flickr (cc by-nc-nd)
Students taking a test.

California education officials have made significant changes to the way hundreds of thousands of special education students take the state's standardized tests. But the modifications have some teachers and parents worried about whether they'll help students. 

“We found some areas that we wanted to improve,” said Keric Ashley, Deputy Superintendent at the California Department of Education.

The changes have to do with the more than two dozen tools available to educators to help special education students take the test. These tools include reading questions aloud, giving frequent breaks, and changing the color of the computer screen to allow a student to see the questions easier.

This year the Smarter Balanced test will allow students to control the volume and pitch on the computer program that reads a question to a student and that reads glossary words related to questions on the test. The test will also now provide Spanish language glossaries to help students who have a disability and who are classified as English Learners.

“What we learned is that accommodations may work for a vast majority of special education students,” Ashley said. “But, like we heard with the text-to-speech changes that we made for some special education students, things didn’t quite work as well as we might have hoped that they would.”

Special education students who take the Smarter Balanced tests typically have disabilities such as autism and other impairments that don’t severely effect a student’s ability to learn. Students with more severe disabilities take other standardized tests instead. Parents have the choice to opt out of the test taking, while the school staff that draws up a student’s Individualized Education Plan can also choose to exempt a student from taking standardized tests.

School staff are busy the next few weeks uploading the accommodations for special education students.

Some teachers are worried that the changes will remove the personal touch that has eased special education students’ test taking anxiety in the past.

Marshall High School resource teacher Mike Finn said he has concerns about several of the new accommodations.

The way the new changes have been explained to him, special students who have the text to speech accommodation have to use it for every question. Automating some accommodations, he said, like having a computer read the student a question eliminates the human touch, and therefore the ability of a teacher to calm a special ed student during testing.

“And the kid is going to put on the headphones and listen to the test while he’s reading along with on the screen," Finn said. "That’s a big change and it sort of robs us of our ability to nuance that."

That’s not good for the student because “what a lot of these accommodations and modifications are doing, from my point of view as an educator, is lowering the student’s test anxiety,” he said.

The wrinkle is that parents and school officials make individual decisions for each special education student. That’s why some psychologists are recommending parents of special education students advocate for their child when the test-taking decisions are made.

Federal law requires special education students to take standardized tests. The state’s change this year to how it gives the test to this population signals how the state is balancing that requirement with the learning and emotional needs of those students.

Parents of special education students are torn about whether to opt their students out of the Smarter Balanced tests.

“The fact that they’re asked to do the testing, I think it’s too much,” said Janae Ellis, the mother of an 11th grade boy with autism who’s set to take the Smarter Balanced test in the next few weeks at Palm Springs High School. She opted him out of state tests in the early grades. When he has taken tests he’s had longer time to take it and has had questions read aloud.

“My son especially suffers from anxiety, greatly," she said. "It’s hard enough for them to get to school and deal with their issues of whatever their personal disability issue is.”

Now though, she has a lot of confidence in the staff at her son’s school and that led her to give the OK for him to take the test in the next few weeks. But she has not talked to the staff at her school about the accommodations that will be made for him.

Child psychologists urge parents to be more proactive.

“The kids that seem to really have the system work for them, are the kids that have the really savvy or aggressive parents,” said child psychologist Michelle Matusoff. "The parents who know the system, know their rights, know all about the accommodations they’re eligible for and they insist that these things are implemented, the others just kind of fall by the wayside.”

Child psychologist Matusoff has several recommendations for parents of kids with disabilities scheduled to take the standardized tests.

  • Be familiar with your child’s test taking accommodations
  • Make sure that the testing accommodations agreed to are being implemented
  • Use online resourcesand books that spell out special education laws and tests

She urges kids who have anxiety before and during a test to be aware of their thoughts, think about what feelings they are having and control their breathing.
State officials said more changes to special education accommodations are likely after this spring’s Smarter Balanced tests.

“We do have our independent evaluation in place,” the CDE’s Ashley said. “We have a couple of different companies looking at these results and looking specifically at how accommodations are used and how supports are used to see how we can improve in the future.”