By Laurie Udesky
"Last spring, Julia Kim’s students with disabilities at Fairmount Elementary in San Francisco were ready to take a new standardized test. They were excited that it had been built especially for them.
In past years, students with visual perception disorders had test questions read out loud. This time, the students sat in front of their computers awaiting the new technology designed to help them complete the test on their own for the first time.
But as soon as the first question appeared, students complained that the print was too small.
The color contrast tool, which used a background to minimize visual distortions, had been developed for the Common Core test to make it easier for special education students to see. But in practice, the tool prevented the one student in Kim’s class who used it from reading questions and marking answers. “I can’t see it,” he told Kim. It was too dark to read.
The Common Core tests, which are based on learning goals adopted in 43 states and the District of Columbia, offer many state-of-the-art technological tools to level the playing field for special education students. But Kim’s students were not alone. School employees across California have reported glitches in the tests’ enhancements for students with disabilities.
A field test administered in 2014 was meant to iron out the kinks. As a result, a noise buffer and closed captioning were added, according to an email sent last April on behalf of Michelle Center, who is now the California Department of Education’s director of the Assessment Development & Administration Division.
Still, according to teachers and administrators, special education students across California spent days last spring toiling over computerized tests that their teachers say often made it more difficult, not easier, for them to access the material.
“The majority of my students weren’t able to process any of the tests,” Kim said.
In San Francisco, one school found that text-to-speech tools read passages too quickly for students to follow, so teachers had to jump in and read the text out loud — distracting other students. The California School for the Blind found that different accessibility tools, such as Braille, could not be used at the same time as text-to-speech. In the Santa Ana Unified School District, curriculum specialist Gabriela Aguirre said she was concerned that the text-to-speech voice was distracting to students because it sounded robotic.
Precisely how many problems occurred with the tools known as accommodations last spring is not known. The California Department of Education didn’t specifically track accessibility glitches, Pam Slater, who worked as a CDE spokesperson until last week, said in an interview this fall.
Kim administered the exams to 14 students with disabilities in third through fifth grades. She and other teachers said they had problems with the accommodations. Those glitches only worsened anxiety about a test they had already worried was going to be especially difficult because of the tougher new standards.
Test scores for students in general, including those with disabilities, were low, as the state announced this fall. While there is no way to know what effect the lackluster accommodations might have had on the results, it’s clear that tools meant to help students with disabilities take tests as effectively as their peers need a lot of improvement.
Of the more than 300,000 students with disabilities who took the tests in California, 88% did not meet achievement targets in English language arts and 91% did not meet targets in math, according to data on the state’s testing website. Among California’s general education students, 52% failed to meet achievement targets on the exam in English language arts and 63% failed in math. Students with disabilities across the country similarly had lower scores than their peers on the new tests."...
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