Future Reflections Winter 2014 TESTING
by Valerie Yingling, Mehgan Sidhu, Esq., and Melissa Riccobono
From the Editor: Educational testing has been with us for decades, but in recent years tests and assessments have become almost ubiquitous in our children's lives. It can be debated whether testing benefits students in the long run, but the fact is that test scores are now used in making a host of determinations that affect students, teachers, and school systems throughout the country. Therefore, it is essential that blind students have full access to the same tests that are used to measure the achievements and deficits of their sighted peers. The National Federation of the Blind is committed to ensuring that blind and visually impaired students have all of the accommodations they need in order to participate in testing wherever and whenever it occurs. In this article, the NFB team working on issues around testing explains a field testing initiative that will begin this spring. The authors share concerns about access for blind students and urge parents and teachers to document their experiences.
As parents and teachers, we want blind children to participate fully in every aspect of school life. Unfortunately and needlessly, this objective is becoming more and more difficult to attain. Besides inaccessible classroom materials and delayed or denied Braille instruction, blind students now face a fresh challenge in the form of Smarter Balanced and Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) field tests.
In 2009, the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association organized groups of educators and researchers to design a nationwide, high-quality math and English-language arts curriculum for students in kindergarten through grade twelve. Since then, forty-five states and the District of Columbia have adopted the rigorous Common Core Standards. The standards do not dictate how educators should teach. Instead, they provide the blueprint schools must follow to ensure that all students are successfully prepared for college and the workforce.
In 2010, the United States Department of Education awarded $330 million to PARCC and Smarter Balanced to design computer-based tests that align with the new Common Core State Standards. In subsequent years, it has granted these consortia millions of dollars more. At present, tests have been designed for students in grades three through twelve. The results of these assessments may be used for teacher and school evaluations, the evaluation of state education systems, and student placement. In other words, these are high stakes tests for students and teachers alike, and there will be a huge push to ensure that students perform well.
PARCC and Smarter Balanced are both multi-state consortia. PARCC is comprised of the following states and district: Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, District of Columbia, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Tennessee. Smarter Balanced consists of the following states and territory: Alaska, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, US Virgin Islands, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. The involvement of individual states in the consortia ranges from governing to advisory, participating, or affiliate membership.
PARCC and Smarter Balanced have committed to making their assessments operational in 2015. Both consortia plan to field test their assessments during the spring of 2014. Smarter Balanced's field testing window will begin on March 18th and PARCC's field testing window will begin on March 24th. The purpose of the field tests is to test the assessments themselves; test scores will not be provided to students, parents, teachers, or schools. The consortia and their participating states have identified schools and classrooms in which to conduct field testing so as to gather feedback from a diverse group of students.
Smarter Balanced maintains that its field tests will include students with disabilities and claims that accessibility and accommodation features will be available on the field test. NFB's Accessible Technology team is in the process of reviewing Smarter Balanced sample questions. It has shared its findings with technology support staff at Smarter Balanced, including findings that demonstrate accessibility barriers.
PARCC has reported that necessary accommodations, including Braille materials and support for Braille displays, will not be available during its field test. Therefore, PARCC has determined that students requiring Braille will not participate. Furthermore, PARCC has shared that it will not release its guidelines for assistive technology software, such as JAWS, until the fall of 2014, after field testing has occurred. In the meantime, PARCC has created its own text-to-speech and magnification software, which it will make available to students for field testing. This approach requires students to learn to operate new and unfamiliar software at the same time they are attempting to complete the PARCC assessment. PARCC predicts that students who use assistive technology screen reading software will be able to do so in 2015 on the operational test.
PARCC's approach to its field test will not provide the consortium with critical information about accommodations for blind and visually impaired students. It will not yield feedback regarding the quality control of its Braille transcription, the effectiveness of the interface between the PARCC screen reading software and a Braille display, the compatibility of its assessment with JAWS and other assistive technology software, or the validity of PARCC's test questions for students who are blind or have visual impairments. PARCC's approach is to wait until 2015, when test scores matter, to try out accommodations for students who are blind.
The National Federation of the Blind has been providing feedback to PARCC and Smarter Balanced about the accessibility features needed for blind students to participate in the assessment tests on an equal basis with their peers, and will continue to do so. Federation representatives have met with officials at the US Department of Education and are collaborating with other disability organizations that share a common interest in ensuring that field and operational assessment tests are fully accessible. Furthermore, because PARCC’s exclusion of blind students from the field test violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, in January 2014 the NFB filed suit against the consortium. The suit demands that PARCC administer the field test to blind students with all the accommodations it has announced it will provide for operational testing.
The Federation's work is far from complete. The NFB continues to gather information from parents and teachers regarding the consortia's field tests. Your help in this effort is critical, as it provides the NFB with comprehensive "real world" accessibility data.
For additional information, please visit the following websites:
Common Core State Standards: <http://www.corestandards.org>
Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career:
Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium: <http://www.smarterbalanced.org>