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Smarter Balanced Adopts Accessibility Rules for Common-Core Tests

[UPDATE (Sept. 12): The Smarter Balanced usability, accessibility and accommodations manual has been posted online.]

Students in grades 3 through 5 who take the Common Core-aligned assessments created by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium will not be allowed to have passages of text read to them as a valid accommodation on the English/language arts tests.

The restriction is part of a usability, accessibility, and accommodations manual that the consortium's governing board voted to accept at a meeting in Los Angeles Tuesday. Twenty-five states are part of the Smarter Balanced group. (This post will be updated when the guidelines are published online.)

Text passages can be read to students in higher grades who have a documented need for such supports in their individualized education program or Section 504 plan, the guidelines say. And students at all grade levels, from elementary through high school can have test questions (as opposed to passages) read to them at a school team's discretion. This applies to both math questions and questions on the English/language arts tests.

Much of the discussion of the accommodations manual centered around the use of read-aloud, said Magda Chia, Smarter Balanced's director of support for underrepresented students. Some disability advocacy groups have argued that, rather than prohibit the use of read-aloud for text passages, test makers should limit its use in cases where students are specifically being tested on decoding skills.

Chia said that the consortium's testing experts went back through core standards to determine that for students in grades 3 through 5, language decoding is a part of what students are learning. For students in middle and high school, the tests are assessing other elements of reading, and thus read-aloud may be appropriate for those older students.

An earlier version of the document allowed text passages to be read to younger students who were blind and in the early stages of learning Braille. However, the consortium was told that it could not single out one set of students with disabilities and say they could use a certain accommodation, while denying it to others, she said.

Chia said states can choose to allow young children to use the read-aloud accommodation anyway, even if the guidelines say otherwise. But in that case, that part of the assessment cannot be considered valid. The consortium's guidelines also say that only 1 to 2 percent of students with disabilities should be using read-aloud, but there's no cap, Chia said.

The read-aloud accommodation is just one of the accessibility tools included in the manual. Some of the accessibility features are considered universal tools and will be available to all students; these would include a highlighter, digital notepad, or spell check.

Other tools are "designated supports," which are available to students whose need for them has been documented by a teacher or team of educators. Such supports include changing the color of the background or screen font, magnification of the screen font, or reading the test questions aloud to a student (as opposed to text passages.)

"Documented accommodations," which include read-aloud of text passages, must be a part of a student's IEP or 504 plan. In addition to read-aloud of text passages, such accommodations also include Braille, American Sign Language, and alternate response options for students who cannot use, or need assistance to use, a computer keyboard.

Smarter Balanced took a different tack than another common-core test consortium, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. PARCC, which received hundreds of comments on its proposed accommodations policy—many relating specifically to read-aloud—decided in June that students at all grade levels taking the PARCC assessment can use read-aloud, but a notation will be made on a student's test sheet indicating that no claims can be made about the student's ability to demonstrate foundational print skills.

My colleague Lesli Maxwell has a post in her blog Learning the Language on what this new manual means for English-language learners.

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