Testing for Special Education Students

by Neva Fenno, M.S.Ed., MLIS

Last time, I talked about blended learning environments for special education classrooms. With this learning model, we might want to talk about testing for our special needs children; are there new technologies that help teachers work with Common Core State Standards (CCSS) at testing time?


I remember in the late 90’s when we were starting to embrace learning standards and develop new high-stakes tests. We heard a loud shriek throughout the land from teachers and parents who were sure their special needs children were going to be relegated to academic Siberia and required to take the same tests as “regular” children. It was a justifiable shriek; it seemed no one had really thought about this thorny issue, at least not very thoroughly.

We’ve calmed down since then, and now realize that requiring special needs students to take and pass high-stakes tests is just the equivalent of raising standards and expectations for all students, and providing the least restrictive environment—which is always a good thing. We’ve developed accommodations for children who need extra support at test time.

According to the law1

Testing accommodations are neither intended nor permitted to:

  • alter the construct of the test being measured or invalidate the results
  • provide an unfair advantage for students with disabilities over students taking tests under standardized conditions
  • substitute for knowledge or abilities that the student has not attained

The testing accommodations most frequently required by students as indicated in their IEP’s are:

  • flexibility in scheduling/timing
  • flexibility in the setting used for the administration of assessments
  • changes in the method of presentation
  • changes in the method of response

The key here is “in the IEP.” We have found ways to include many accommodations for special needs children in their IEP’s. We have struggled to find methods of assistance that don’t alter the tests or invalidate the results.

The NCEO (National Center for Educational Outcomes) provides a helpful bibliography of research-tested accommodations for testing. They also provide a nice description of differences among accommodations and discussions on test validity and reliability. There is considerable variability among states for the development of accommodations. Over time, states have developed alternate assessments that align with alternate state standards. We have also struggled with providing support for ELL students who have special needs.

teacher little girl

Where does technology step in to help us out with all these delicate balancing acts? A practical discussion of different ways classrooms can manage accommodations can be found at http://drscavanaugh.org/assistive/technology_accommodations.htm.

Teachervision has been one of my favorite sites over the years. They apply teacher speak to most of the ideas they present, and this article on assistive technology for students with mild disabilities is an example of that. Adaptive technologies may or may not be carried over into the testing environment. Remember the IEP? It may be allowed in the IEP, but here are some resources to help you sort this out.

Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) provides some guidance on using adaptive technologies for testing. PARCC is a group of states working together to develop a set of assessments that measure whether students are on track to be successful in college and their careers.

But, I digress. There are as many organizations, companies and others who are interested in creating and providing testing materials and guidance as there are stars in the sky, and for obvious reasons. There is a great deal of money to be made. Rather than insert my opinions about this, I’ll provide you with some (hopefully) unbiased resources to help districts with assistive technology make decisions as they relate to testing.

Education Week

University of Texas at Austin (study)

Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium

Wikipedia on CAT

One Parent’s Opinion (NY Times)

Indiana University (Assistive Technology and Assessment Center)

Let me know how your district has evolved on the subject of testing and the use of assistive technologies.

1Text taken from: http://www.p12.nysed.gov/specialed/publications/policy/testaccess/guidance.htm, New York State Education Department.

Grant Name: Teacher Art Grants

Funded By: P. Buckley Moss Foundation for Children’s Education

Description: The P. Buckley Moss Foundation for Children’s Education aids and supports teachers who wish to establish an effective learning tool using the arts in teaching children who learn differently. They look to support new or evolving programs that integrate the arts into educational programming.

Program Areas: Arts, Special Education

Eligibility: Public School, Private School

Proposal Deadline: 9/30/2015

Average Amount: $250.00 – $1,000.00

Address: 152 P. Buckley Moss Dr., Waynesboro, VA 22980

Telephone: 540-932-1728

Website: P. Buckley Moss Foundation for Children’s Education

Availability: All States

Summer Thoughts


We still run most American schools on an agrarian calendar. It’s great for teachers and administrators to have a break. It’s great for above-average students. It is not-so-great for many at-risk and disabled students. As most of us align to Common Core State Standards, we are updating our special education curriculum maps and IEP’s. This is a professional development exercise that is perfect for the summer months. If we are in sessions with our colleagues, it’s a good idea to share some thoughts on keeping our special needs kids on track.

Where above-average students might grow from 1.2 to 1.4 years in math and reading in a 9-month school year and lose only .2 to .3 years of growth over the summer, weaker students who grow.7 or .8 of a year in math and reading can lose up to half of that gain over the summer. Year-round school and summer school is one way to prevent backsliding for weaker students. As a former library media specialist, I like keeping the school library open all summer and having reading camps. Ideally, these fun times are for all students, but there’s nothing wrong with having a special session for special kids. Reading lists can be prepared with input from your colleagues in the regular classroom, providing guidance on standards they are targeting.

For your reading lists, pick titles that have potential for field trips as follow-up activities. Look to your public library for grade level offerings in local history. In my town (Marblehead, MA), I was pleased to see a small flock of kids walking around our Fort Sewall recently. It has a wonderful Revolutionary War story, and students seem to be engaged by conversations about the U.S.S. Constitution. The Cincinnati library has a wonderful list of fiction books regarding the Revolutionary War. Your local librarian will be helpful, too. When you take the kids to the library, use the opportunity to make sure they all have library cards to encourage future visits!

Unfortunately, not all schools provide these programs throughout the summer for those students who need it. If we want special needs students to stay on-track, or even to get ahead during the summer, either parents or some dedicated teachers can make plans for at-risk and learning-disabled students.

Fortunately, some excellent online curricula are available. On our Revolutionary War theme, there’s the Guide to the American Revolution list of relevant sites for information and entertainment. Some other reading and field trip pairings can be found at Field Trips and Other Adventures.

Teachers should make student reading levels very clear to parents, and even provide individualized book lists for each student’s summer reading. Parents can be encouraged to choose additional books to read to their children. Summer needn’t be boring or a grind. Just reading for pleasure is enough for some. When kids see parents reading, it provides a solid message that reading is a daily activity for everyone.

As you’re planning for grants, notice how many of the sources are interested in funding STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) projects. Funding realities remind us that we will not see year-round school schedules any time soon. However, do I hear a call for a grant? This is an ideal summer project for teachers who are grant-savvy. Foundations and corporations in particular are often eager to support summer programming.

Tie your program to academic achievement and you have a fundable, possibly unbeatable combination. Because these sources of funds are often dedicated to supporting the communities where they are located, the search for one can be challenging. The MySchoolGrant℠ database will help you find national and local sources of funds for after-school programs.

If you work with children affected by autism, I highly recommend that you research Autism Speaks as a source of potential funding.

Autism Speaks. Autism Speaks seeks to directly support the innovative work of autism service providers in local communities across the United States. The focus of their Family Services Community Grants is three-fold: to promote autism services that enhance the lives of those affected by autism, to expand the capacity to effectively serve this growing community and to enhance the field of service providers.

States: All states
Average Amount: $5,000 – $25,000
Telephone: 917-475-5059
Email: sselkin@autismspeaks.org
Website: http://www.autismspeaks.org
Eligibility: Public School, Private School, Other
Program Funded: After-School, Arts, Community Involvement, Volunteerism, Disabilities, Early Childhood, Family Services, General Education, Healthe/PE, Library, Math, Reading, Safe/Drug Free Schools, Science/Environmental, Social Studies, Special Education, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math), Technology, Vocational
Deadline to Apply: 3/25/2014