This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
In 1997, Congress amended the federal special education law to say that students with disabilities must be included in statewide and districtwide educational assessments, with "accommodations" when needed.
The decision to require standardized testing of students with disabilities, which Congress reaffirmed last year in the No Child Left Behind Act, has been controversial.
Everyone agrees that schools should be held accountable for the progress of children with disabilities. This will not happen, some argue, unless these youngsters are fully included in the testing program.
On the other hand, for a 14-year-old child with disabilities who is working hard to succeed at a third grade level, taking the regular eighth grade test may be a deeply frustrating experience — even with "accommodations." And there are broader questions, such as whether schools are relying too heavily on standardized tests and whether the tests are really being used to improve instruction — questions that are as important for kids with disabilities as they are for others.
Currently, nearly all Philadelphia students with disabilities take the PSSAs (the statewide standardized tests) and the TerraNova (Philadelphia’s tests), either with or without accommodations. Each assessment has a specific set of allowable accommodations.
The IEP team, which includes the parents, must decide what kind of accommodations the student needs, if any, and the accommodations agreed upon must be listed in the student’s "individualized education plan" or "IEP." An accommodation can be something simple, such as extra time, or more complicated, such as the use of a communication device.
The Philadelphia School District will generally let a student use as testing accommodations those extra supports he or she uses for the regular program. For example, if a student uses a calculator for his or her math studies, the IEP team should let the student use a calculator to take the math portion of the PSSA.
On the other hand, the District takes the view that an accommodation should not be introduced solely for testing purposes. So, if the student does not use a calculator for math, it is unlikely that the accommodation would be allowed for the PSSA.
Braille and large print versions of the PSSA are available, and sign language can be used to assist students with hearing loss.
While accommodations can be helpful, the debate continues about whether — even with accommodations — the current approach makes sense. Some argue, for example, that "out-of-level" testing — taking the test at a different grade level — should be permitted in some cases. Currently, however, Pennsylvania has a firm rule against out-of-level testing on the PSSA.
Congress did decide, when it amended the special education law, that a small number of students with severe cognitive disabilities should not take the regular assessments, even with accommodations. For those students, Pennsylvania has developed an alternate assessment called the Pennsylvania Alternate System of Assessment, or PASA. About one half of 1 percent of the students in Pennsylvania take the PASA, including roughly 470 students from Philadelphia.
How have students with disabilities performed on the PSSA? The answer is "not well at all." In Philadelphia, students with disabilities have scored well below other Philadelphia students in every grade and in every area tested. Low scores on the PSSA and TerraNova will not prevent a student with disabilities from graduating if the student meets the other requirements of his or her program. But low performance levels of students with disabilities do affect the District’s and the schools’ overall scores. Low overall scores, of course, led to the state takeover last year.
What should you do to improve a child’s performance on state or District assessments? Certainly the most important thing is to make sure that the student is receiving the instruction and special education support needed to make educational progress. In addition, parents or guardians should try to make sure that the IEP includes all of the accommodations the student needs to show what he or she really knows.
As experience with the testing program grows, we hope there will be opportunities to reexamine its validity and utility — and to change it in ways that would make greater educational sense for children with and without disabilities.