Common Core State Standards Testing Accessibility

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PARCC, Smarter Balanced, and the Common Core State Standards

Beginning in 2009, the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association convened groups of educators, school chiefs, and researchers to design a nationwide, high-quality math and English language arts curriculum aimed at preparing students in grades K-12 for success in college and careers. Forty-three states, the District of Columbia, and four territories have since adopted the rigorous standards. These standards not only provide building blocks for classroom instruction, but also measurable goals that schools, districts, and states can use to evaluate students’ academic progress.

The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) and Smarter Balanced are multi-state consortia charged with designing and implementing computer-based tests that align with the new Common Core State Standards. The consortia operate in accordance with the Department of Education’s Race to the Top grant and, per the grant, must accurately measure and report students’ proficiency toward the standards in an inclusive testing process, specifically one which includes students with disabilities.

PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessments will be operational for the first time this school year. In preparation, both consortia have developed practice tests and materials to familiarize students with the types of questions asked and the testing software used for the assessments. Unquestionably, PARCC and Smarter Balanced practice and operational assessments must be accessible to students who are blind and have vision impairments.  Pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the tests must be delivered in a manner that best ensures they will measure students’ mastery of subject matter, rather than reflect their disabilities.  Appropriate and individualized accommodations must be available.

The National Federation of the Blind Demands Equal Access


In September 2013, PARCC stated that not all accommodations would be available on its field tests, including Braille, tactile graphics, and commercially available screen reading software such as JAWS, effectively excluding blind students from participating in its field test.

In response, NFB filed suit against PARCC on January 24, 2014, on behalf of a blind high school student in New Jersey whose sighted classmates were scheduled to participate in the field test, raising claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

On February 24, 2014, PARCC and the NFB reached a settlement agreement in which PARCC committed to working with the NFB to ensure that blind students are not left behind in the assessment process. Under the terms of the settlement, PARCC will make its materials accessible to blind students and will consult with the NFB to ensure that all practice tests and assessments will be available at the time of deployment in accessible formats used by blind test takers, including Braille files for embossing in hard-copy Braille or via electronic access methods such as refreshable Braille displays and text-to-speech screen reader software.

See the related NFB press releases:

Smarter Balanced

On January 23, 2015, after months of outreach to Smarter Balanced, the NFB, along with seven national disability advocacy and technology organizations, sent a letter to the governing board of Smarter Balanced, urging the board to resolve critical access barriers prior to states’ March 2015 summative assessment test dates. In its letter, the NFB identified technology and policy barriers that, if unresolved, would preclude students with disabilities from equally accessing the high stakes assessment, a violation of federal disability rights laws, including titles II and III of the ADA, the IDEA, and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Currently, Smarter Balanced’s accommodation guidelines exclude the use of text-to-speech on English  language arts reading passages for students in grades three through five, and other essential accommodations, in an attempt to preserve measured test item constructs. Smarter Balanced also has failed to make its test compatible with commonly used screen-access software and devices, including VoiceOver and iPads; has created a fallible process for schools to emboss tactile graphics on-demand while students are testing; and has failed to remediate extensive access barriers in its testing platform.

See the NFB’s letter:

At this time, the NFB and other disability advocacy organizations are engaging in discussions with Smarter Balanced in an effort to remediate the identified accessibility barriers.

How You Can Help

Though the NFB has advocated extensively, our work is far from finished.  We are continuing to gather information regarding PARCC and Smarter Balanced practice and operational tests.  Your feedback in this area is critical.  As parents, students, and teachers, you can provide NFB with valuable data reflective of the assessments’ use within your local school districts.  In particular, as students take the assessments for the first time this spring, we want to know when and where accessibility and accommodation failures happen so that we can help ensure any problems are fixed.  Please complete the following survey and encourage other parents, students, and teachers to do the same:  Common Core Assessment Survey.

Valerie Yingling
410-659-9314, extension 2440