When Oregon earlier this year trumpeted its work to improve the testing of students who read Braille as groundbreaking, the state didn't mention a civil rights complaint filed in 2009 that contributed to the changes the state ultimately made.
Oregon introduced online versions of its state tests in 2001. But it wasn't until this school year that students who read Braille could take the tests online. Taking the tests on computers gave all other Oregon students multiple opportunities to take the Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. But blind students didn't have the same option.
"As time went by, the online [option] became more and more prevalent. The group of kids taking the paper-and-pencil form became smaller and smaller," said Holly Carter, an assessment policy analyst for the Oregon Department of Education. "We never updated having more opportunities (for students taking the test on paper). We were focusing on making the online tests more accessible to more students."
But in 2009, a parent filed a complaint with the U.S. Education Department's office for civil rights over the fact that students taking the tests on paper couldn't take the tests more than once. The complaint, which I was able to dig up through a public records request, applied to any student who needed to take the test on paper—students who read Braille, needed a large-print version of the test, or whose education plans say they needed a paper test for any other reason.
"That was kind of an artifact of our old assessment system," Carter said.
The state's goal was to ultimately include all students in the online adaptive testing system. The complaint nudged the state education department to get to that goal more quickly, she said.
Oregon partnered with the American Institutes for Research on developing Braille versions of the online adaptive tests, a labor-intensive process that resulted in tests that provide a more precise measure of a student's abilities, shorter testing time, and led to an investment in new technology for schools that enroll students who read Braille.
Using refreshable Braille displays connected to computers, blind students can take tests that base questions on how the student answered the one before. The tests are the first adaptive exams in Braille in the country. Hawaii began using similar tests this school year, too, but they don't involve refreshable Braille displays—each test item is translated into Braille on paper instead. Kentucky and Arizona have offered online assessments for students who read Braille, but they aren't adaptive tests like Oregon's.
A 2010 resolution over the issue with the office for civil rights included a timeline for equalizing testing opportunities for all students by July of this year.
"We were able to come to a resolution that not only helps the kids of Oregon but helps kids nationally," said Christine Miles, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Education Department. There is interest in Oregon's tests for students reading Braille from all over the country, including one of the consortia developing tests for the Common Core State Standards.