The Notebook interviewed Maura McInerney, senior staff attorney for the Education Law Center, in November about what parents need to know regarding testing of special education students and English Language Learners. A shorter version of this interview appears in our Dec. 2015-Jan. 2016 print edition.
Notebook: What do parents of English Language Learners and Special Education students need to know regarding standardized testing?
Maura McInerney: For both sets of parents, it’s important for them to know what their rights are. Students with disabilities and English language learners [ELLs] are entitled to accommodations on standardized tests. It’s important to discuss these issues with their schools well in advance of when the testing is taking place.
For students with disabilities, the decision of what accommodations will be provided is made by the [Individualized Education Program] IEP team. That includes whether the child will take the test or not, and what type of test the child will take. For example, there’s a PSSA, but there’s also something called the PASA, which is available for students with disabilities.
In the context of the IEP plan, there is a set of decisions about accommodations in respect to the testing itself and what will the environment look like for that student. There are many different types of accommodations.
Many students with disabilities get minimal accommodations. The most popular one is probably extended time – when in fact, they have a right to many more. They can have the test read to them. Instead of writing answers, it can be audio- or videotaped. Those issues need to be discussed with families.
With students who are ELL, many times the issue of accommodating standardized tests doesn’t even arise. You don’t have that meeting as you would with an IEP team to discuss it. Those issues need to be raised with the student’s teacher – particularly with the English as a Second Language teacher, who often knows the children very well.
For ELLs, allowable accommodations, for example, are qualified interpreters and sight translators for the Math PSSA and the Keystone Algebra I and the science tests – both the PSSA and the Biology.
Unfortunately, due to budget cuts in the School District, accommodations are rarely available. Often, it doesn’t come up.
All of these accommodations are voluntary, none of them are mandatory for ELL. In other words, while providing accommodations for ELLs is mandatory, the specific type of modification to be provided is left to the discretion of schools. It’s a significant issue that needs to be raised with families.
For children who have chronic conditions like diabetes or asthma, they are also entitled to accommodations in testing.
Notebook: What are some of the challenges ELL and special ed students face when taking these tests?
McInerney: I think that the most common challenge that I hear is the anxiety that it causes for children with emotional support needs or children who are ELL. I know that some ESOL [English as a Second Language] teachers have said that it can sometimes erode the child’s trust to be given this exam. They may not be able to do it [or] feel like a failure. It sometimes can undermine their trust in the system and their trust in the teacher, which is obviously something we want to sure up.
Some challenges [with special ed students] can be addressed by ensuring that IEP teams are discussing the options that are available and in place. I think it’s a matter of expanding the accommodations for children who are ELL, and quite honestly, I would consider different testing for them and to have the input of teachers in developing those tests.
ELL students are tested in their 7th-or 8th-grade class. These children, especially if this is their first year of ESOL instruction, are used to being with their ESOL teachers. They have more of a trust relationship with that person. One of the things that would be helpful [is] if they could be tested in that environment. If they have a teacher there that can assist them that might be a less anxiety producing experience for them.
It’s also the fact that we test kids who may have just come into this country. If they come after April 11, they will be tested in reading, math, science, with absolutely no English language at all; no proficiency level.
Notebook: How well are these students performing on standardized exams?
McInerney: We know that almost 65 percent of ELL in Philadelphia scored below basic on the PSSA. Actually 69.12 percent of students who receive special education services score below basic. A lot of instructors have said that it doesn’t really make sense for them to take some of these tests because they also have to take the ACCESS tests which measure proficiency in language. The ACCESS tests cover four content areas of social studies, science, math and English. They look at listening, speaking, reading and writing proficiency across those domains and content areas.There’s a lot of problems with the ACCESS test but those are the proficiency tests that they take.
In addition, they are also taking the PSSAs and the Keystones. There are certainly benefits to having at-risk student populations take standardized tests because we want to ensure accountability. We want to ensure that schools are paying attention to these populations, knowing what their reading and math level is. I know from participating in IEP meetings that I certainly use that gauge to say, are they making progress towards their goals?
The important thing is to provide effective and individualized accommodations for many of these students. For example, if you have an ELL who has just come to this country, is at the beginning level, this child is asked to take a test in a language that they don’t know at all. Although they are allowed to essentially wait a year to take the reading test they are required to take the science [and] mathematics tests. In those instances, that child is sitting in a classroom that is providing instruction in English, and they are just learning the language. The idea that they would be able to do well on these tests is really quite astounding.
I think that we need to take a look at who is being tested [and] at what level does it make sense, especially with respect to the beginners and those who are just entering. And then, are those children getting the accommodations they need in order to get an accurate sense of whether they’re learning the material.
Notebook: What challenges does using the Keystone exams as a graduation requirement present to ELL and special ed students?
McInerney: It’s a huge obstacle [because] once we impose it as a high-stakes test, every child has to pass it. There are varied options to the Keystones. There is a project-based option, but that is also a standardized test. It is not that different than the Keystone exam. We believe in accountability and we think it is very important to ensure that students who are graduating from high school have learned what they need to go on to higher ed and to participate in the work force. Those are very important goals that we want to highlight. However, if we are going to impose these Keystone exams, we need to provide sufficient resources for our students to pass them.
If we are imposing high stakes tests, we need to ensure that there are interpreters and translators, that there is sufficient instruction time to ESOL students, which is a huge issue in the School District right now. We now have the bare-bones schools in many instances that are not able to provide the resources to bring these very at-risk students up to where they need to be. I think to test them in a system where you haven’t provided adequate resources to enable them to graduate is a huge problem.
Notebook: Do you think that using standardized tests is an effective way to measure the academic progress of these students?
McInerney: I think that with respect to some students, it can be a good, accurate, objective measure, but for students who really don’t receive the accommodations they need, who don’t have an individualized plan for how they’re going to take these tests, I think that is sometimes is not an accurate measure.
I have difficulty saying that for all children with disabilities, it’s not accurate. I think for some students it is and for other students, it’s not. I think it depends on how the test is administered. There are cohorts of students for whom particular standardized tests are not appropriate. For certain students who may have disabilities there may be certain tests that do not make sense for them to take the test. That’s a decision that needs to be made by the IEP team.
We certainly encourage as much information as we can gather about at-risk populations because we know that having that objective measure is important to make sure we’re not being left behind. There are different ways to look at that issue and to ensure that we have some objective measure of how they’re doing. We want to ensure accountability, but we really need to take a step back and look at the way that we’re doing it. At the current time, we have a one-size-fits-all universal approach that I don’t think is valid for all students.
Notebook: What measures do you think the the state could take to make sure that the testing is fair to ELL and Special Ed students?
McInerney: In both instances, and with respect to ELL, there are no mandatory accommodations at all for these students. I think that is something we need to look at. In addition, I think that we need to look at whether this test makes sense for all ELL students. I think we need to take a step back and critically analyze whether it makes sense to give it to all students in the same way. I think that for some students it does not make sense. Right now we have very vague accommodations that are available to ELLs. Everywhere you look it says all of this is voluntary, none of this is mandatory. I think we’re putting all ELL students at a distinct disadvantage.
In addition, we have a deeper problem that we have very little state standards embedded in law with respects to what ELL students are entitled to. We don’t state the minimum level of ESOL instruction that should be provided, where other states do. We shouldn’t just be looking at standardized testing in a vacuum, we should look at it in the broader view of what kind of education are we providing to our students. I think that certainly the state needs to look very critically at whether they are providing the right test to the right students with adequate and individualized accommodations available to all.
It’s a matter of funding sometimes. In a high wealth school district, they may have accommodations that are simply not available to students in the School District of Philadelphia for whom that standardized test may have a more dire consequence. I think with children with disabilities it’s similar. There needs to be more guidance with respect to what accommodations should be made to certain students.
Brianna Spause is an intern at the Notebook.