Alfabet Soop (April, 2021)
Amy Traynor, OTR, M.A., ATP
A column dedicated to facilitating an understanding of the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework and Assistive Technology (AT) and what each might look like for individuals with dyslexia.
Released in the April, 2021, Issue 6 of The Dyslexia Revolution,
the quarterly newsletter by The Dyslexia Initiative
It’s that time of year again. Birds are chirping, trees are budding and students (and their parents!) are starting to plan for and fret about STANDARDIZED ASSESSMENTS! As a parent, emails have been dropping into my inbox almost daily with announcements, reminders or to-do’s for one or both of my children in regard to spring assessments, so I can only assume the same thing is happening to you! Right about now you may be thinking-wait...I thought this column is about assistive technology; why are you writing about standardized assessments? Glad you asked. Administration of standardized assessments on a computer has been taking place with greater frequency year over year. With so many students continuing to attend school virtually, that number will likely increase significantly this year requiring the use of technology to deliver allowable accommodations.
For many of our children, standardized assessments cause worry about going to school and elicit anxiety, both which can create a barrier to learning. Additionally, far too many parents are bullied by campus or district administrators who are providing false information related to standardized assessment. Contrary to what most schools would like you to believe, there is actually federal policy regarding standardized assessments and provisions for opting out. Parents-YOU ARE THE PARENTS and are protected by law that allows YOU to decide if your child takes one of these assessments or not. Please know that as a parent and therapist myself, there is not one “right” answer when it comes to how your child takes a standardized assessment or not, each child is different and even children have different needs from one year to the next. The intent of this article is to provide food-for-thought as you are deciding what is best for your child this year and resources to help support your decision in communicating your choice to your school and/or district.
The Every Student Succeed Act (ESSA) is a federal law with multiple provisions for schools, students and families. ESSA is clear that parents have the right to refuse testing for their child(ren), for any reason, period. While the ESSA does require 95% of students to be tested it also provides individual states options if too few students are tested. So read it again: ESSA recognizes that it is fully the parent’s right to OPT THEIR CHILD OUT OF TESTING. Parents should not fear that their school/district will lose funding or their child will not be able to graduate as a result of opting-out or tolerate bullying from schools/districts who are unwilling to recognize these explicit provisions in ESSA. You can find full-text of the ESSA and more by visiting https://www2.ed.gov/policy/elsec/leg/essa/index.html.
So you’ve made the decision to opt your child out of standardized assessment, now what? I am going to make the assumption that as a reader of this newsletter, your child has dyslexia or other diverse learning need(s) that is/are supported by either an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or 504 plan. If this is the case, your child’s campus administrators are most likely making or have made plans for how your child will take the assessment with allowable accommodations, inclusive of staffing decisions. In my personal opinion, I think taking the higher road, one that is respectful to the school/district staff, is the best first approach. You never know if or at what point you might have to enter dispute resolution and when you've consistently been respectful in your communication and willingness to work with the school, it will be much more challenging for you to be portrayed as a “difficult” or “unreasonable” parent. That being said, a respectful parent would recognize that the school is making arrangements to accommodate their child during testing and making staffing decisions accordingly. By letting the school know in writing and in advance that you are opting your child out, you are giving them the opportunity to plan accordingly with staffing, space and equipment needs. Your email does not need to be anything elaborate. In an email to your child’s teacher and campus administrators, you can simply state:
“As (your child’s name) parent, I do not want (your child’s name) to
participate in the (name of your districts/state) assessment this year. I wanted
to let you know in advance so that you would have the opportunity
to plan your staff and other needs accordingly, with the awareness that
(your child’s name) would not be taking the (name of test) assessment.
If there are additional documents that I need to complete or district
procedures to follow, I am requesting that you send them to me via reply to this email.”
Personally, while I think you should receive a thank-you-for-thinking-of-our-needs email in response, I doubt you will and, quite possibly, you will receive a phone call in response to your written notification. Take the call, have the conversation, jot down some notes and follow up with another email to whomever called you in which you summarize and capture the conversation in writing. It’s always a great idea that whenever you’re having a verbal conversation with someone from your child’s school/district, to follow up that conversation in writing. Also, if the individual happens to mention a “policy” that prevents what you are asking to happen from happening, request in your email that they provide you with that “policy” in writing. 99.9% of the time, they will not because they cannot, as the “policy” they are referring to either does not exist or is illegal. In some instances sending the email and a possible phone call or email exchange might be the end of it and you gain the “blessing” or at least understanding that your child will not be taking the assessment. In some instances, the school/district may continue to provide you with information they deem valid, but remember, the law grants YOU the PARENT the final say. Depending on your tolerance for banter, it may just be easier to keep your child home on test days and any test make-up days. Another option is sending him/her to school and having him/her write “refused” on the test materials, book and answer form. If your child is given a computer based assessment, have him/her simply skip through the questions without answering (if possible) or select the same random answer for ALL questions and just get through. If you know that your child will be administered a computer-based assessment, I recommend you connect with other parents or contact your state department of education to ask for more specifics about the computer-based assessment so you can prepare your child to refuse accordingly.
So what if you decide to go ahead and have your child take standardized assessments-what considerations do you need to think through? As written earlier, I am making the assumption that as a reader of this newsletter, your child has dyslexia or other diverse learning need(s) that is/are supported by either an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or 504 plan. Your child’s plan contains accommodations that are made in the classroom on “regular” school work or school situations as decided by the committee making the IEP or 504 decisions. Standardized assessment can also be administered with accommodations, but their use is typically done with stricter guidelines according to your specific state and may not include all “regular” accommodations. For example, here in Texas, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) releases “allowable accommodations” and lists them on their website along with different criteria for use and procedures for requesting their use, if applicable. I suspect something similar is available in your state too. Here is where the connection to assistive technology comes into play. If your child has routinely used assistive technology as an accommodation in the academic area in which the standardized assessment will be administered, a similar accommodations that supports the area of need should be provided. For instance, if your child has an accommodation to have text read aloud either by staff or with assistive technology tools such as a screen reader or audiobooks, when and where reading skills are not assessed, the same should be provided in the standardized assessment. In math, this might look like word problems and answer choices; in science perhaps the entire scientific “scenario” and answer choices; in language arts, questions and answers. However, in reading, if reading is being assessed, passages are likely not read aloud but it may be allowable for questions and answer choices to be read. If your child uses supports such as spell check, word prediction, text to speech or traditional word processing for written expression, they might be considered “allowable” or perhaps instead, a human scribe might be used during standardized assessment measuring writing skills.
I implore you to consider to what extent accommodations are provided and used in your child’s program, both during the regular school day and during standardized testing situations. As a therapist and assistive technology professional, I am all for accommodations when they are used appropriately. Unfortunately, even when used by committed educators with the best intentions, they can be detrimental to your child’s overall academic progress. Please keep reading and allow me to further explain why I think this. The intent of an accommodation is to mitigate the effects of a disability. But what if using the accommodation is providing a false sense of progress or mastery of the content area? What if the accommodations is not being administered with fidelity? Is the accommodation for read aloud support provided but instead of only reading the questions and answers in a reading standardized assessment is the proctor for your child “helping” them and/or the school and reading the entire assessment? Oftentimes when read-aloud is an accommodation it also means that the administration will be in a one-on-one setting. Would anyone really know how the test was given? Or, even if only the test questions and answers are read, how is the material presented? Are their images? Is the language used in and the wording of the questions and answer choices so explicit that an error cannot be made?
Extended time is also a frequently used accommodation for students with dyslexia or other diverse learning needs. Extended time-sounds great, but what does that really look like? If your child has extended time for a standardized assessment, how will you know how long it took your child and how does that relate to his or her peers? Let's take a 3th grade student with a specific learning disability in basic reading and the condition of dyslexia as an example. This student has excellent vocabulary and background knowledge which support improved overall comprehension, but struggles with decoding, encoding and fluency. Allowable accommodations for standardized assessment include reading questions and answers, extended time and 1:1 administration. What happens when the standardized assessment is administered and the student does well? Does it give the impression that achievement gaps have been closed when they may not have been? Do you know how long it took for your child to take the test? Was it three or four times as long as the “typical” child? Were the accommodations administered with fidelity or was the entire assessment-passage and questions and answers read to your child? If your child does “well” with accommodations, what might happen to the provision of intervention or other supports? Standardized assessments rarely measure the discrete skills in which our children with dyslexia struggle, so are we really measuring progress and mastery of content or are we measuring the mastery of utilizing accommodations? Let’s take a language arts/writing standardized assessment example for an 8th grader with dyslexia. This student receives the support of text to speech and spelling support with standard spell check as accommodations both in class and on the state assessment. Poor spelling is one of the hallmark characteristics of dyslexia, so what happens when we negate the effects? Yes, the student can produce a composition without spelling errors, or at least fewer of them, but does that composition imply that there is no longer a deficit in encoding that requires explicit and systematic intervention? Are the grade level expectations truly being met or just the illusion of such? What are the potential consequences of the appearance of mastery when in fact, “raw” skills were just not measured? Will there be an administrator, mediator or hearing officer down the road that will look at the “passing” scores and assume the achievement gap in the discrete areas of deficit have been closed, when in fact there is still a multi-year deficit? As a result of these possible outcomes of taking the assessment, perhaps you may also wish to consider having them take the assessment without accommodations. While this might sound scary and provoke thoughts of possible retention or other “drastic” measures, if your child is on an IEP, retention ultimately is the decision of the committee making the IEP decisions.
For more information regarding retention, please follow this link to a resource produced by Wrightslaw: https://www.wrightslaw.com/flyers/retain.promote.pdf
The decision to utilize accommodations both in the typical school day and during standardized assessments should be thoughtful and not made in haste. Accommodations, inclusive of assistive technology, are excellent for “levelling the playing field” and mitigating the effects of a disability. Accommodations, inclusive of assistive technology, when applied with a broad-stroke approach or without thoughtful consideration to the consequences to a student’s progresses, can be damning to future supports, interventions or compensatory education a student may receive.
It hope this has given you food-for-thought around standardized assessments and the use of accommodations. If this leaves you with more student specific questions about your child or one for whom you support, I encourage you to seek guidance from your state department of education followed by your district. There are so many points to ponder and why I say, when in doubt, just opt out.
Amy Traynor, OTR, M.A., ATP: Amy is an occupational therapist, assistive technology professional, and most proud of her role as mom. She began her occupational therapy career in August 2000, committed to success and participation for ALL students in the school setting. Most of her 20 years supporting students in public schools were focused on assistive technology supports for literacy and physical access. As a parent of a child with dyslexia, she has a deep understanding and appreciation for the role technology plays for students who learn differently. Amy is also the founder of E2 Alliance, LLC, providers for educational consultation, evaluation, advocacy and training. Given her commitment as a parent advocate, the National Center for Learning Disabilities has contracted with Amy to lead their Texas Parent Advisory and Advocacy Council. Feel free to share thoughts or ask questions by emailing Amy at firstname.lastname@example.org