Test accommodations are any modifications made to tests or testing conditions that allow students with physical disabilities, learning disabilities, or limited English-language ability to demonstrate their knowledge and skills in a testing situation. Common modifications include extending the amount of time students are given to complete a test, reducing the number of test items, having someone else write down test answers, or listening to questions read aloud by text-to-speech conversation software. Students who are still learning the English language are also eligible for accommodations such as bilingual glossaries or test questions presented in their native language. The accommodations may apply to both standardized tests administered to large populations of students, including high-stakes tests used to make important decisions about students, and to the assessments that teachers use to evaluate what students have learned in a particular course.
The general goal of providing testing accommodations is to create a level playing field for students whose disabilities or language abilities may adversely affect their ability to show on a test what they have learned. A few obvious examples include offering Braille-based exams to blind students, providing written rather than oral instructions to deaf students, or making a testing location wheelchair accessible for wheelchair-bound students. There are, however, less obvious—but often equally necessary—accommodations, such as extended testing time for students with documented learning disabilities or neurological conditions that may cause them to take more time to process certain kinds of information. In addition, students with disabilities may also be eligible to complete alternative forms of assessment rather than sitting for a test—one example would be submitting a portfolio of their work that is then evaluated by educators.
A variety of state and federal policies require schools to provide test accommodations. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, for example, requires states to have regulations and guidelines governing testing accommodations. Test developers often provide guidance on accommodations and how they can be provided to students without affecting testing validity—i.e., the recommended accommodations should not interfere with the test’s ability to measure what it is supposed to measure. State education agencies usually have strict guidelines for which accommodations are permitted on state exams used for the purposes of school accountability. For most students with disabilities, federal and state regulations require any alternative assessments to be based on the same learning standards that apply to all other students (for a small percentage of students, however, their disabilities are considered significant or severe enough to qualify them for alternative assessments that are based on modified learning standards).
The following are a few representative testing accommodations made for students with disabilities:
- Students may have test instructions clarified by a teacher or test administrator.
- Tests may be presented in a different format, such as in larger-sized font or by being read to students by text-to-speech software.
- Students may be allowed to say their answers aloud to someone who will document them in written form.
- Students may be allowed to take the test in a different setting or to take frequent breaks during the testing session.
- Students may have a specified amount of extra time—such as 150 percent of the time given to other students—or they may be able to take a test over the course of multiple sessions and days.
The following are a few representative testing accommodations made for students who are not proficient in English:
- Students may have access to materials that give bilingual word-to-word translations (without defining the words) or to dictionaries and glossaries that define English terms in their native language.
- A translator may provide an oral translation of test items in a student’s native language.
- Students may be allowed to respond to questions in their own language, with a translator documenting the responses in English.
- Students may be given more time to complete a test.
Testing accommodations are typically an integral component of test-based educational policies and reforms aimed at ensuring that all students, including those with special learning needs and disabilities, have fair and equal access to a high-quality public education, which extends to how students demonstrate what they have learned on tests and other assessments. A variety of laws—including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and state-specific special-education legislation—require schools to provide accommodations and additional services for students with specialized needs.
To ensure that tests and assessments accurately measure the abilities and academic progress of students, test accommodations are generally limited to only those specific and appropriate modifications that educators, experts, and test developers have determined will allow students to demonstrate what they know and can do. Restricting test accommodations in this manner is intended not only to ensure testing validity and fairness to other students, but also to ensure that test results don’t overestimate or underestimate student abilities. For example, inaccurately inflated scores could lead to the withholding of specialized services and accommodations that students may actually need, while inaccurately low scores could mask a student’s true academic potential and abilities, which could result in him or her being placed into courses that are insufficiently challenging. Accurate measurement based on the appropriate use of accommodations is also important to educators who want a precise picture of what students know and can do, since testing results are often used to inform the instructional and support modifications that students may need.
Testing accommodations also have significant implications for high-stakes testing, given that test scores—whether they are accurate or inaccurate—may be used to make important decisions about schools and teachers. If students with disabilities and limited English proficiency are not allowed appropriate accommodations, schools could inaccurately be deemed “low-performing” and be subject to sanctions, funding reductions, negative publicity, and other consequences. For example, the federal No Child Left Behind Act requires standardized test scores to be reported for various student subgroups, including students of color, students with disabilities, and students who are not proficient in English. If one student subgroup fails to meet expected proficiency and progress levels, the school may be labeled “low-performing” even if a majority of its students perform well on the test. In this case, if testing accommodations were not provided to students with disabilities, the school would be disadvantaged. And schools with large populations of students who are not proficient in English, for example, would be at an even greater disadvantage.
Since there is little debate among educators about the need and ethical responsibility to provide appropriate testing accommodations to students who have a documented need for them, debates tend to center on whether the most appropriate forms of accommodations are being used. In addition, some debate or misunderstanding may stem from less-obvious accommodation situations, such as those related to cognitive impairments rather than physical disabilities.
The following are representative arguments that may be made in favor of appropriate testing accommodations:
- They help students more accurately demonstrate their actual level of knowledge and skill, reducing the potential for inaccurate or misleading scores.
- They can increase a student’s confidence and comfort level in testing situations, mitigating the anxiety or fear of failure that may adversely affect test performance.
- They can help students with disabilities or language barriers improve their academic confidence and grades, while also recognizing their academic strengths and abilities.
- On college-entrance exams, accommodations can make it possible for capable students with learning disabilities to continue their education.
The following are representative arguments that may be made against test accommodations:
- If inappropriately applied, test accommodations can contribute to score inflation. If teachers then overestimate a student’s level of knowledge and skill, based on inflated scores, the student may be assigned unsuitable or overly challenging schoolwork, which could lead to frustration and failure.
- If accommodations artificially increase a student’s performance, producing an inaccurate picture of his or her ability level, the student may not receive the specialized assistance and services he or she needs.
- If the overuse of accommodations produces inflated test results for certain groups of students, it could appear that their school no longer needs special-education resources and staff, which could cause the school or district to lose the funding and resources needed to serve their higher-need student populations.
The Glossary of Education Reform by Great Schools Partnership is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.