High-Stakes Testing Self-Advocacy Toolkit

The need for high-stakes testing accommodations begins as early as high school entrance exams and continues beyond college graduation to include professional licensure assessments. In every case, these exams help to steer individuals towards or away from their educational or career goals. These tests are extremely important and by law must be accessible to individuals with disabilities. If you are a high school, college, or graduate student, or seeking to advance in your career, then this toolkit is for you.

What constitutes a high-stakes test?

The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination in exams administered by any private, state, or local government entity pursuant to applications, licensing, certification, or credentialing for secondary or postsecondary education, professional, or trade purposes. Tests covered include: [1]

  • High school equivalency exams (e.g., the GED);
  • College entrance exams (e.g., SAT or ACT);
  • Admission exams for professional or graduate schools (e.g., the LSAT or GRE); and
  • Licensing exams for trade or professional purposes (e.g., medical licensing exams).

This multitude of high-stakes tests is designed and administered by a broad range of vendors and publishers. You may be familiar with vendors such as College Board, Pearson, or Prometric, or with test publishers such as the Association of Social Work Boards, National Board of Certified Counselors, or Association of American Medical Colleges. The Americans with Disabilities Act applies to these and most testing entities.[2]

Per federal regulations, high-stakes tests must be equally available to individuals with disabilities as they are to the nondisabled and must be “administered so as to best ensure that, when the examination is administered to an individual with a disability that impairs sensory . . . skills, the examination results accurately reflect the individual’s aptitude or achievement level or whatever other factor the examination purports to measure, rather than reflecting the individual’s [disability].”[3] The playing field is leveled when test takers are provided with their needed testing accommodations. Entities must “ensure that no individual with a disability is excluded, denied services, segregated or otherwise treated differently than other individuals because of the absence of auxiliary aids and services.[4]

Examples of common testing accommodations include:[5]

  • Accommodations for reading, such as a Braille or large print test book, an accessible electronic version of the test, tactile graphics, a live reader, or a recorded test;

  • A way to record responses or take notes, such as a scribe, Braille device, scratch paper with bold tip marker, or word processor;

  • An accessible calculator, such as a talking calculator, or permission to use the calculator on a Braille device;

  • Extended time or extra breaks.

Testing accommodations should be individualized to a test taker’s specific needs. Whereas some students prefer information presented tactilely via Braille, others may need information to be presented aurally via screen-access software or a human reader.

Requesting Accommodations

Generally, test providers include instructions for requesting accommodations on their website, alongside the test registration process. It is not uncommon for the accommodation approval procedure to be a detailed and slow process, though the US Department of Justice (DOJ) has provided guidance that “[T]esting entities must offer examinations to individuals with disabilities in as timely a manner as offered to others and should not impose earlier registration deadlines on those seeking testing accommodations.”[6] Despite this, it is never a bad idea to begin the test registration and accommodation request process early.

Testing entities have the right to request documentation in support of your accommodation request, but should limit requests to only the documentation needed to verify approval of your accommodations. For example, testing entities may ask for the following or similar information,[7] and it’s best to be prepared to provide this documentation well in advance of your targeted test date:

  • Proof of past testing accommodations;
  • Educational observations or evaluations; or
  • A description of why requested accommodations are necessary.

High-Stakes Testing Best Practices

It is frustrating that blind test takers must take these additional steps to ensure equal access to high-stakes tests. Adhering to the following best practices may help prevent accommodation disputes or denials:[8]

  • Request accommodations early. The earlier you start the process of requesting accommodations, the more likely you are to overcome any issues that arise.

  • Always request accommodations in writing.

  • Request the accommodations that you need to best ensure that your abilities are accurately measured. When it comes to asking for additional time or other measures that have the potential to do more than make the test accessible, make sure that you are asking for accommodations only up to the point that you need them. Take time to describe why you require accommodations that may be perceived as duplicative (for example a Braille test book and a reader).

  • Do not limit yourself to only those accommodations a testing entity lists as available—the list may not be inclusive and may not include what you need to have full access.

  • Provide sufficient documentation to support your request, including confirmation of accommodations you currently use or have used in the past.

  • If you are unsure of whether your accommodations have been approved, do not hesitate to contact the testing entity. Do this well in advance of your testing date.

  • If you received a document from the test provider confirming accommodations for your exam, bring this document with you to your testing site and be prepared to provide it to test proctors who may question your accommodations.

Appealing an Accommodation Denial

Testing accommodations may be denied for a variety of reasons. It is possible that the administrator misunderstands your request and that further explanation is needed. It is also possible that the test has never been administered with your requested accommodation and may not be formatted to do so—though this is not a valid reason for an accommodation denial. Sometimes, testing entities will deny a requested accommodation and offer a substandard accommodation in its place, such as offering a human reader in place of a Brailled test. Be very careful about accepting any accommodation other than that which will give you full access to the test. Accepting an ineffective accommodation that results in a low test score may make it difficult to secure the accommodations you need for future tests, because testing entities often review your history of testing accommodations. An entity may ask why you now need a JAWS-accessible test when you previously completed tests with a human reader.

If you are experiencing problems with securing testing accommodations, familiarize yourself with the test’s accommodation appeal process and any related appeal timeframes. Also contact Valerie Yingling, paralegal at the NFB legal office at [email protected], or (410) 659-9314, extension 2440, to report your experience and determine whether the legal office or another resource can assist with your accommodation request.

Test Scores

The Department of Justice specifically prohibits testing entities from flagging or otherwise identifying test scores for individuals who have disabilities and used accommodations to complete a test. Scores must be made available similarly for all test takers, regardless of their use of accommodations, so as to prevent uncertainty as to whether test scores are accurate and to minimize discrimination and exclusion by those interpreting test scores for admission and certification purposes.[9]

Practice Materials

In the same manner that high-stakes tests must be made equally available to individuals with disabilities, so too should all practice test materials. Often practice test material is created and sold by third-party companies not directly affiliated with the test in question. Kaplan, for example, provides test preparation materials for the SAT, ACT, GMAT, GRE, LSAT, MCAT, NCLEX, USMLE, and bar exams. Inaccessible practice materials put blind test takers at a significant disadvantage. If you have encountered inaccessible practice test materials, please notify the NFB legal office.

Key Lawsuits and Settlement Agreements

The rights of blind test takers have been and are continuing to be defined by key legal actions:

Contact Information

The National Federation of the Blind knows that blindness is not a defining characteristic and should not limit an individual’s ability to complete high-stakes tests and ultimately achieve his or her fullest potential.

For further information on high-stakes testing or for other legal inquiries, contact Valerie Yingling, paralegal at the NFB, at [email protected], or 410-659-9314, extension 2440.

References


[1] ADA Requirements: Testing Accommodations, US Department of Justice (2014) http://www.ada.gov/regs2014/testing_accommodations.pdf.

[5] Jill Green, College Board Testing Accommodations: What You Need to Know, 33 Future Reflections 18, 20 (2014).

[6] ADA Requirements: Testing Accommodations, US Department of Justice (2014) http://www.ada.gov/regs2014/testing_accommodations.pdf.

[7] Id.

[8] These recommendations are based, in part, off of recommendations by Jill Green, College Board senior director of case management services for students with disabilities, College Board Testing Accommodations: What You Need to Know, 33 Future Reflections 18, 18-20 (2014).

[9] ADA Requirements: Testing Accommodations, US Department of Justice (2014) http://www.ada.gov/regs2014/testing_accommodations.pdf.