New and improved standardized tests will bring lots of benefits for students, especially students with disabilities and English language learners.
Now is March, many schools across the country is around the corner of the spring testing season. In real, the window for state testing has already opened in states like Florida, Oregon and Virginia. Standardized tests aren’t going to win any popularity contests, but there is broad agreement that schools should use tests as the tools for supporting teaching and learning.
Tests are only helpful if they accurately measure what all students know can be able to do. Unfortunately, for students with disabilities and those who are still learning English, poorly designed tests can create unnecessary difficulties that prevent them from showing what they’ve learned. The good news is that new tests developed by two consortia of states – the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, or Smarter Balanced – are breaking down those difficulties.
Several months ago, there has been a steady analysis on the quality of both groups’ tests. From November 2015, the National Network of State Teachers of the Year, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the Human Resources Research Organization, all published studies showing that these tests are more accurate, they require more critical thinking, and better align to what students are learning than old state tests.
Recently, my Center for American Progress colleague Samantha Batel and I found that PARCC and Smarter Balanced represent tremendous progress specifically for students with disabilities and English language learners. Our new report with the name “Better Tests, Fewer Barriers,” explains how these exams are better than previous state tests in three key ways: universal design features, innovative accommodations and inclusion of all students.
Universal design is a simple but powerful idea: Designers should find out everyone’s needs at the beginning, not the end. This approach makes products and services more accessible to people, without costly modifications. It’s cheaper and easier to design sidewalks with curb cuts than to add ramps to every corner, and it’s better for cyclists and parents pushing strollers, not just wheelchair users. That is the reason why PARCC and Smarter Balanced designed their tests to include built-in features like pop-up glossaries, zoom tools and highlighters that are available to all students.
The PARCC and Smarter Balanced exams also take advantage of technology to provide accommodations for students with disabilities and English language learners that seem to be expensive or impossible. The computer-based tests allow students to hear test questions read aloud using headphones, watch videos in American Sign Language and even see translations of content in multiple languages. They even can provide computer-based tests for students with vision impairments.
Moreover, these new tests can include more students and measure their performance more accurately compared to old state tests. Smarter Balanced’s test is adaptive, which allows the difficulty of questions to change to better for student’s achievement, and provide better information about the growth of struggling learners. Establishing accessibility features help reduce stigma by allowing all students to take the test under the same conditions, rather than divide them into separate room because they need additional accommodations. And these tests are much more accessible, even students with disabilities who previously took alternate assessments are now taking the same tests as their classmates without disabilities.
Certainly PARCC and Smarter Balanced aren’t perfect. 12 million students in 30 states taking these exams for the first time in spring 2015, so it’s not surprising that the roll-out had a few hiccups. Not all of the features worked as well as expected. Some technology problems happened in states like Nevada and Montana. And some students who use assistive technology devices still have challenges with devices work for the tests. Fortunately, both consortia have already made changes to address these issues, and students will continue to become more comfortable with computer-based tests.
PARCC and Smarter Balanced represent a remarkable advancement in high-quality tests that are much more accessible for all students. And states should build this progress and continue to think creatively about innovative approaches to assess student abilities. These tests are established for all students , particularly the 10 million students with disabilities and English language learners.