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Common Core test tools aid students with special needs

Exams include on-screen calculators and read-aloud instructions
Common Core test tools enhance accessibility for students with disabilities while keeping them in the classroom with their peers. (Photo: Smarter Balanced)

Common Core assessments are making testing easier for students with special needs, experts say. The computer-based exams include tools such as on-screen calculators and read-aloud instructions to enhance accessibility for students with disabilities while keeping them in the classroom with their peers.

“These accommodations are available with the click of a mouse—you don’t have to worry about printing off a test with larger print or paper-based glossaries,” says Magda Chia, director of support for underrepresented students at Smarter Balanced. “You can easily have a customized assessment for each student.”

Because each Common Core consortia covers several states, every student will have access to the same materials. In the past, this access varied from school to school, Chia adds.

Both PARCC and Smarter Balanced have three tiers of testing resources. The first, universal tools, is available to all students and includes calculators, highlighters and zoom functions to make text larger. Previously, many of these were available only for special needs students.

The second tier, with tools such as translated test directions and glossaries, is for ELL students and others whom teachers have determined need extra assistance.

The third tier comprises special needs accommodations, such as Braille text, closed captioning and descriptive videos. These tools, which are authorized by a student’s IEP team, can be turned off by a teacher if they are not helpful or are a distraction, Chia says.

The biggest difference between PARCC and Smarter Balanced is the extent to which they allow the controversial read-aloud tool known as text-to-speech, which is sometimes used by students with dyslexia and other disabilities. Some experts believe this tool gives test-takers an unfair advantage, while others argue that students who use it in class should be allowed to do so on the test.

Smarter Balanced allows text-to-speech for the English assessments in grade six and above. PARCC allows text-to-speech at any grade level, but points out on the student’s score report that no claims should be inferred regarding the student’s ability to demonstrate foundational reading skills such as decoding and fluency.

In the first six weeks of the 12-week Smarter Balanced field tests, approximately 570,000 tests were administered with resources designed to increase accessibility. It’s too early to tell how the assistive tools performed, but any adjustments will be made before the real tests begin next spring, Chia says. PARCC representatives did not return emails asking for comment.