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Test Supports for Students With Disabilities Vary From Year to Year

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For students with disabilities, test accommodations can make the difference in their ability to show what they know. But a new study suggests that getting such supports one year is no guarantee of help the next year.

In a new study in the journal Educational Assessment, researcher Heather Buzick of the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J., tracked the performance and growth of students with disabilities in grades 3 through 8 on annual standardized tests in two states from 2005 to 2009. Buzick found that of the more than 4,700 students with disabilities who took the tests in each state, 15 percent to 40 percent of those with test supports had inconsistent accommodations from the prior year to the current  year. 

Test supports—which can include extended time, having reading or math instructions or test items read aloud to them, or being allowed to use manipulatives to work through math problems—often vary by grade and subject. Buzick found students in higher grades were more likely to have received supports only in the first year, while younger students were more likely to have received accommodations in the current year, suggesting students may be "graduated" out of supports as they get older. Moreover, students who had accommodations in two consecutive years were more likely to have not performed proficiently on the test in the first year than were students who had not received any test supports.

But the study also found that students who received test accommodations in the first year but not the second year showed less academic growth on the tests than students with disabilities who received no test supports at all. By contrast, students who had support on the current year's test showed higher growth than either other students with—and even those without—disabilities. It's not clear, Buzick said, whether students who lost the accommodations they'd had in the prior year were adjusting to the new testing format, or whether there was another reason for the lower growth.

"When we're looking at individual students," Buzick said, "I would say that additional context should be given, and more information besides just the computerized test score should be used to make decisions for individuals who are receiving accommodations." 

The study comes amid debates by policymakers and educators about how to include the achievement and growth of students with disabilities in teacher evaluation systems. Buzick noted that while the percentages of students with inconsistent test supports was high at the state level, "the numbers of students receiving accommodations is consistently very small within a school or district," she said, "We can be pretty confident that this would not have an effect on, say, value-added scores or some sort of aggregate evaluation."

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