Future Reflections                                                                                                      Fall 2001

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Testing, Testing

by Peggy Elliott

Editor’s Note: Mrs. Elliott, a practicing attorney, is the Second Vice President of the National Federation of the Blind, and President of the NFB of Iowa. Her interest in the knotty issue of testing goes back to her own experiences when she was a blind college student and a leader in the National Association of Blind Students. Mrs. Elliott often speaks on this topic to groups of blind students, blind professionals, and to parents of blind children, and is on the leading edge of those within the organized blind who seek to find resolutions to the problems standardized testing presents to blind students. Here is what she has to say on the topic:

Testing is an issue. That’s the first step to grappling with something – to define whether it is an issue or not. In the case of blind people, testing is an issue and will continue to be into the foreseeable future. I’d like to state some facts to begin the conversation.

Standardized Testing. Most of the really hard testing issues revolve around standardized testing. Most of us know the testing hurdles one must vault to get into college, graduate school, or a profession. More and more, standardized testing of one sort or another is moving into the nation’s kindergarten through high school classrooms. It is the “standardized” part of standardized testing that causes the problems for blind people.

Validation. Before mentioning some of the problems, I should note the fundamental problem with standardized testing of the blind: it doesn’t exist.

Blind test-takers will be awarded scores after taking a test. But that score will be accompanied with a letter “flagging” the score. Standardized testers take the position that anyone who takes the test under “non-standard” conditions acquires a score that is not “valid.” In other words, the score is flagged as meaningless because for some reason the tested person is different.

It’s useless to get all worked up about this injustice; the reason is imbedded in testing theory which is based on the law of averages. As nearly as I can tell, the law of averages trumps the United States Congress, and the Americans with Disabilities Act will never overturn testing theory.

So what? The score is invalid. It’s still given to the college or graduate school. Here are some reasons why it matters: first, the school is looking at a flagged score. They’re not supposed to discriminate, but, then, they don’t know why it’s flagged. They just know it is. Will they be fair in considering the applicant? Probably, but not necessarily.

Peggy Elliott
Peggy Elliott

Second and more important, we have evidence that the scores of blind persons under-represent the ability of the person being tested. If the score is lower than other performance records and indicators of the person’s knowledge, it nevertheless exists and is in the person’s record. For my money, this vicious circle of non-standard scores being invalid should always be raised whenever a blind person is seeking to enter something score-based. We should all be complaining, not to the testers but to the users, and demanding fair treatment despite under-representative scores. The users of scores like colleges are under a duty not to discriminate, and it’s those users we should hold to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Preparation. One of the reasons our scores are under-representative is that we have all too often been exempted from formative experiences. Blind kids need more than words and descriptions, they need hands-on experiences. It doesn’t cut it, for example, to tell a blind kid about stop signs. To gain a complete understanding she needs to get her hands on a real one. But this all too often doesn’t happen. Blind kids also need well-rounded educational experiences. It is hard to do well on tests if you have been exempted from big chunks of the curriculum, such as units on using the library and reference materials, or even whole subjects, such as physical education and chemistry. Because it can be difficult, time-consuming, and costly to accommodate blind students – especially Braille readers – blind students seldom get as much experience as other students do in taking tests, preparing for tests, or practicing test-taking strategies. Weak educational and experiential backgrounds will tell in standardized testing.

Method. One of the favorite tricks of fate is to test the blind person’s ability to deal with adversity instead of his or her knowledge.

In standardized testing for higher education, for example, it is repulsively common for test-takers to be assigned a reader not of their choice whom they meet at the door of the testing room. All of us who use readers regularly know that serving as a human reader for a blind person is not the same thing as reading to oneself or reading aloud occasionally. Most people don’t commonly read out loud, and the act is acutely uncomfortable to most. Moreover, human readers are serving as an interface to the printed word, and this interface needs to be defined and guided by the user, the blind person. Human readers should not be tutors, interpreters, or helpers. They are voices with sight, available to the blind person to achieve access to the printed page. In other words, blind person and human reader are in a two-person personal relationship. The reader learns what the blind person commonly wants, how to pass information to this particular blind person according to his or her desires, and short cuts to common tasks. They come to understand the whole range of signals and preferences that are just as unique to each blind person as is every sighted person’s approach to acquiring information in print.

Then the standardized test comes along. Owners and administrators of these tests have a very high opinion of the value of their product and a very low opinion of its users. In other words, they think everyone will cheat if given half a chance. So, test security is tight. I have heard more than one administrator say that, if the blind person brings his or her own reader, the reader in effect is cheating, will give the answers for the blind person, will basically take the test since the reader is sighted and obviously smarter. When I have protested this as unfair and countered that the tester is welcome to “proctor,” that is, sit someone in the room to observe the testing process, I have been told that a proctor won’t be effective since the reader will figure out signals to queue the blind person to answers. Nonsense! Either they proctor or they don’t. If there are special signals, they identify them and throw the blind person out.

Anyway, the growing trend is to assign readers unfamiliar with this blind person and, often, unfamiliar with reading to a blind person at all. The blind person meets the assigned reader for the first time at the commencement of the high-stakes situation and essentially trains the reader while taking the test. The result is that the blind person is really being tested on how quickly he or she can train a reader under stressful conditions. It’s remarkable that so many of us do so well.

Another version has recently cropped up: computerized test administration. We blind people use a variety of speech or Braille output devices and are as accustomed to our own devices as we are to our own readers. I recently heard of someone writing instructions for a blind person to take tests by computer. The instructions, the person proudly said, would cover both the test itself and how to use the computer. These same instructions weren’t needed for sighted persons whose visual access to the computer is achieved by icons and the mouse. But, for the blind person, the result very well may be testing how quickly a blind person can learn a new computer rather than his or her knowledge of the subject matter.

Method will always be important for blind persons in testing situations to be sure that the blind person’s knowledge and not extraneous skills is being tested. This should be a job for the IEP team in the kindergarten-through-high school context, but it is a task very often taken over by the owners or administrators of a standardized test. This adds to the high rate of under-representative scores among blind students.

Versions. Another common blow from fate is the version problem. All large-scale standardized tests will have several different versions. Most testing agencies will offer only a few of these versions in an alternative format. This means that more often than not, a blind student – in order to get the format of their choice – will have to take a different version of the test than their peers are taking. Sometimes a version will be offered in large print, but not in Braille or on tape. The blind student using a particular format may also be limited in choices of when or how often they may take a large-scale standardized test.

Scheduling. And then there’s scheduling: refusing to let the blind student take the test at the same time as other kids. This one completely baffles me. It almost always results in the loss of yet another school day, and it’s unnecessary. Yet growing evidence suggests that large national testing agencies for no apparent reason feel very strongly about this. In my book, it’s stupid and harms the kid.

There is also another scheduling problem for high school students that often results in kids getting bumped from test-taking opportunities. Testing agencies have rules about how far in advance a disabled student must register and make a request for accommodations. If you miss the deadline – which can be literally months in advance of the deadline for other students – and if that test is only given once, or if the format and method you choose is only available on one specific test-taking date, then you’ve missed your chance for that year. The problem is knowing who in your school is responsible for getting those orders, registration forms, and accommodations requests in on time. The testing coordinator? The counseling office? The teacher of the visually impaired (TVI)? What if the TVI thinks the counseling office is doing it, and the counseling office assumes the TVI handles all the blindness accommodations? What if they all agree that the TVI will do it, but the forms come to the testing officer, and the testing officer doesn’t know what it is and they get thrown out? I could go on and on about the “What if’s” but you get the picture.

Another tip. Higher education and professional testing is now being hugely impacted by the presence of persons with other disabilities. These are sometimes called invisible disabilities, such as learning disabilities and autism. Much of the paperwork now required to define accommodations for standardized testing comes from the tester’s need to identify and verify invisible disabilities. So they make us prove we are blind – which is plain to anyone and a hassle for us – and then make up questions for everyone seeking accommodations, even though their real target is the invisibly disabled.

For example, we are required to specify what type of accommodations we need. Well, as far as I know, the types are pretty clear when it comes to blindness. But that’s the rule we now have to follow.

Here’s the deal. More and more testers are ruling that blind persons cannot bring their own readers. However, more and more testers are also requiring that the disabled test-taker specify their accommodation routine. Imbedded in this routine is a request for a list of the accommodations the blind person commonly uses. And another request is for several educational officials to verify that those are the blind person’s usual accommodations. As I say, these are really aimed at other disabilities, but they pretend they’re being fair by putting us through the same set of pre-test production of proofs. I’m thinking that we may be able to use the one stick to poke the other out of the way.

If we use readers and list that as an accommodation, and then get school officials to verify it, so that everyone is saying that readers chosen and trained by the blind person him/herself is one of the usual accommodations, then perhaps we can begin to get back the reader of our choice in these high-stakes situations. I know of one case where it’s worked. It also helps if parents and students have had this accommodation listed in the IEP in middle or early high school. This is important to do even if the student is a strong Braille reader. (As I said earlier, it isn’t always possible for the student to get the format of their choice for specific tests.) Of course, blind and visually impaired students really should be learning to train and use readers beginning, in some cases, as early as middle school but certainly no later than high school.

Agile and Persistent. The bottom line in testing is that we have to be prepared. We must be agile in making our arguments, and persistent in our advocacy. And then we have to be willing to complain when we are tested unfairly. When a test is given unfairly and the blind person still passes, that’s a credit to the blind person but it’s still a violation of his or her rights under the law. So, let’s get to it!

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