This week, the Kentucky Board of Education banned the use of readers on state reading
comprehension tests. A reader can be another person or computer software that reads text aloud, and is an accommodation used by some students with disabilities, who may also use this kind of help in class every day. The switch affects end-of-year state exams.
The shift has some people alarmed, especially about the effect on students whose education plans (IEPs) require the use of a reader. (State education department spokeswoman Lisa Gross tells me readers could be used on exams in other subjects.)
Special education advocates opposed the move, including hundreds of Kentucky teachers.
In particular, the change is expected to affect students with specific learning disabilities such as dyslexia. One end-of-course state exam counts for 20 percent of a student's grade in that course. Taking that test without a reader—either another person or computer software— could be devastating, advocate Cindy Baumert said.
Some board members said they understood concerns that students who truly need the accommodations won't get them, but several also said students' dependence on readers on exams points to flaws in instruction and enables students to never learn to read fluently.
"All of us have struggled with this. This is a case of bad practices in the field has gotten us to this point where we have to do something to provide an incentive not to continue that poor practice," Board Vice Chairman Roger Marcum, a former teacher and superintendent, said. "The struggle for me is that we have large numbers of students who are receiving accommodations and it makes sense to me that many of them could be more independent in reading skills. But students who legitimately need the accommodations, I struggle with saying we're going to pull it away from them."
Ms. Baumert told the board about a member of her family who is dyslexic and is in college studying engineering. He often relies on a computer program to read aloud for him. His dyslexia is not going to go away.
A related, but separate issue: State exclusion rates on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called the nation's report card, have dropped recently, but some state exclusion rates remain high. When students are excluded, there are obvious questions about whether a state's scores actually reflect all of the state's students. Students who use readers on reading comprehension tests are excluded from NAEP in Kentucky, Ms. Gross said, because using a reader or assistive technology that works like a reader isn't allowed on NAEP.
(Exclusions on NAEP have even been the subject of a Government Accountability Office report.)
But Martha Thurlow, director of the National Center on Educational Outcomes, said states don't have to eliminate reading accommodations on tests to address NAEP exclusion rates.
Instead, they can carefully define who qualifies for this accommodation, define the construct of reading differently by grade level, require IEP teams to make separate decisions for the state tests and NAEP, and increase professional development about the read-aloud accommodations.