Whether, how, and how much educators should deploy technology to help special-needs students on high-stakes tests are complex issues in the era of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). As mandated by the federal law, teachers and administrators around the nation must strive to make sure special-needs kids meet the same high standards as their peers.

That struggle was underscored in July, when the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) released a report highlighting the difficulties inherent in giving achievement tests to special-needs learners. To achieve NCLB’s goal of testing every child, regardless of need, researchers concluded the Education Department must do a better job of providing guidance for alternative forms of testing.

“A number of state officials told us that the regulations and guidance did not provide illustrative examples of alternative assessments and how they could be used to appropriately assess students with disabilities,” the report’s authors noted.

The federal analysis was conducted in response to concerns from state education agencies–many of which have struggled to devise alternative assessments for more than 6 million students with severe cognitive and physical disabilities. While state and federal officials continue to debate the percentage of disabled students who should be exempt from mandatory achievement tests, others question whether metrics designed to assess less challenged learners can accurately reflect the progress of special-needs students.

It’s a difficult problem … and one Judy Brady, an administrator for assistive technology at the Anne Arundel County Schools in Maryland, says can be solved–at least, in part–with a single word: technology.

News ideas taking hold

In Maryland, Brady and her peers have been lobbying hard for the adoption of alternative testing solutions that use technology to address a myriad of special considerations.

From students with learning disabilities (LDs) to those who have vision problems, there are solutions on the market today that can help put a wide range of physically and mentally challenged students on a level playing field with all their classmates, Brady said.

When it comes to taking standardized tests, there are three main considerations given to students with bona-fide physical or mental handicaps, she said. Depending on what’s listed on their Individualized Education Plan (IEP)–a personal profile that has become a legal necessity for special-needs learners–students might be entitled to (a) more time; (b) additional breaks between questions, or (c) having the test questions read aloud to them.

Traditionally, students who request and are granted one or more of these special accommodations are grouped together based on need or placed individually in rooms with special test proctors whose job it is to read the questions aloud to them. But while these systems have been in play in schools for years, Brady said, this approach is inefficient, cumbersome, and–in most cases–highly ineffective. Not only is it often hard to find official test readers willing to donate their time, she said, but there is no guarantee that the students will make use of the services once they are provided.

With grant money from the Maryland Department of Education, Brady has set out to determine whether certain assistive technologies–such as text-to-speech software, or programs that can enlarge the font size–can do a better job of boosting student comprehension and test results.

And Brady is not alone. Other forward-thinking states–such as Massachusetts and Oregon, to name two–also have begun looking for ways to better accommodate students with special needs.

Short on viable alternatives and required by law to boost student test scores, educators in Massachusetts have turned to Boston-based software provider Kurzweil Educational Systems Inc.–which manufactures the Kurzweil 3000 reading program–to provide special accommodations for students taking the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) exam, a rigorous statewide test designed to assess students’ skills in major subject areas in grades 3-12.

Owing to the sophistication of the technology, the software is currently limited to LD students in grades six and up, said Dan Wiener, assessment coordinator for students with disabilities at the Massachusetts Department of Education–though officials are considering making the technology available to students in lower grades as well, he said.

The Kurzweil product is one of several assistive technology programs being marketed to schools as a means to reach students with learning disabilities and other physical and mental handicaps. The program lets special-education teachers scan in everything from textbook chapters to worksheets or test questions and then reads the materials back electronically to each student, giving students the ability to control the rate of speech, decrease or enlarge the font size, and highlight words as the text is read aloud, among other options.

Through the department’s agreement with Kurzweil, Wiener said, state officials work with company representatives to create an electronic text-reader version of the state assessment, which is then burned to a CD and distributed to schools that request it for their students. Though Massachusetts’ accommodation policy does not specify use of the Kurzweil product in particular, Wiener said, Kurzweil is the only company state officials are working with to ensure the test reads properly.

The English and Language Arts portions of the exam have been proven to work well with other screen-reading technologies, Wiener said, but most text-to-speech software programs run into problems when confronted with technicalities inherent in advanced math and science equations. To avoid these hurdles, Kurzweil technicians work with state officials to ensure that every question on the test reads correctly before shipping the CDs to schools, he said.

Until recently, the software was used in Massachusetts classrooms primarily to help students prepare for the MCAS and other assessments. But in 2002, occupational therapist Jennifer Edge–formerly of the South Shore Educational Collaborative, an educational co-op with nine member school districts–asked state officials if she could begin using Kurzweil 3000 to administer standardized tests. After all, her LD students used the technology in their day-to-day classroom activities, she thought–so it’s only fair that they be allowed to use it on the test, too.

The state education department agreed and permitted Edge to test this alternative approach with a small group of 10 fifth-grade and two eighth-grade special-ed students.

“We needed something,” said Edge, to help these kids navigate “the minefield of high-stakes testing.”

Not surprisingly, her students picked up the technology quickly. And so did the state. Today, Wiener said, more than 250 LD students in grades 6-10 use the technology as an accommodation on the MCAS.

“Kids responded incredibly well,” said Jay Savage, an English teacher at South Shore Regional Vocational High School in Hanover, Mass., and a former educator with the collaborative. “If you give these kids the right tools, they can achieve at the same level or higher levels than kids in the mainstream.”

“It’s going great,” said Wiener of the testing accommodations, though he cautions the technology is not for everyone. IEP teams in Massachusetts, as in other states, have to be extremely careful about who they provide testing accommodations to. If a child who does not have a learning disability were to receive special accommodations on the test, then educators could be accused of providing students with an unfair advantage, he said. And that could lead to trouble.

“We only want kids who are accustomed to using it in the classroom using it on a test,” Wiener said, adding that “introducing this accommodation to a student on the day of a test can do more harm than good.”

To avoid any potential controversies, Massachusetts has adopted a policy similar to that of 45 other states, which specifies that only those special-needs children who use accommodations throughout the course of their daily instruction be allowed to request special considerations during the test.

“These students have a legal right to these accommodations,” said Wiener, citing his state’s testing regulations.

Added Savage: “The kids sort of look at it like a pair of glasses. You wouldn’t take away someone’s glasses before a test. It’s the same thing.”

Not so cut-and-dried

But according to Marty Blair, policy director for the National Center on Disability and Access to Education, the situation is slightly more complicated than that. “I understand the argument, and I think I even agree with it,” Blair said. “But it’s hard to make that argument stick from a purely scientific point of view.”

While the intention of accommodation is to give students an alternative means of receiving and processing information, Blair said, the use of text-to-speech readers and other technologies on high-stakes tests raises concerns about the overall validity of the exam. If a question is meant to judge how well a student reads a passage, for example, the purpose of that question is negated once the question is read aloud. “The way the student interacts with the question is fundamentally different,” Blair noted.

Even though he agrees with the need for such accommodations on high-stakes exams, Blair encourages states to consider how certain alternatives might affect testing outcomes.

Back in Anne Arundel, the process of evaluating assistive technologies continues as Brady and her fellow educators look for ways to better prepare struggling learners for the Maryland State Assessment (MSA), a statewide assessment similar to Massachusetts’ MCAS, which is currently given to students in grades three, five, and eight.

As part of the project, Brady and her team have tested a variety of systems, including WYNN (What You Need Now) from St. Petersburg, Fla.-based Freedom Scientific. Like the Kurzweil 3000, WYNN is a scan-and-read technology that simultaneously reads text aloud while highlighting the words for the student. WYNN also comes with a variety of additional search and productivity features, including the capability to read and highlight text on web sites.

The company also offers a scaled-down version of its scan-and-read product, called TestTalker. With TestTalker, educators can scan in any test or worksheet and have it read electronically to the student. Students then write their answers on standard bubble sheets and hand them in as if they were taking the test through traditional means.

Currently, Brady is in talks with state education officials to begin administering alternative assessments via TestTalker. Though not as advanced as WYNN or Kurzweil’s 3000, Brady says the software is fully capable and more affordable, especially for schools with tight special-ed budgets. She estimates it would cost the state less than $100 for every eligible LD student to deliver alternative assessments using the TestTalker software–a far cry from the multi-thousand-dollar price tags attached to large-scale WYNN and Kurzweil deployments, she said.

“Kids that have reading and writing problems–if they’re provided with the technology that will read to them–it’s a given that they are going to comprehend better,” Brady said. It’s not that these kids aren’t smart, she explained: “They can apply the information easily–if they can get it.”

LD students might not process the information until they hear it repeated a second or third time, Brady said. If they’re reading it, they might not get it at all. And that’s where the technology comes into play.

“If a student can’t learn to tie his shoe, you provide him with Velcro and move on,” said Wiener, who believes that LD students in particular must “leapfrog” over the mental barriers to “get to the higher-order skills.”

Ann Black, director of the Special Education Technology Center at Central Washington University and another longtime supporter of alternative testing strategies, said there is a misconception in education that kids with disabilities “ought to be able to do it like everyone else.”

“If you can get over a disability, it’s not a disability,” said Black, who believes the reason so many physically and mentally challenged learners struggle on state tests is because the metrics are built to measure their weaknesses–not their strengths.

“These kids have perfectly good brains, but they learn in alternative ways–and we need to test them in alternative fashions,” Black explained.

In an environment of high-stakes testing, where individual teachers and even whole school systems are judged by how well their students perform on a battery of state-approved tests, educators are placing more emphasis than ever before on students with special needs. Some say the federal law, though controversial, has forced schools to focus on improving learning for all students–and not just those who are already ahead of the game.

“Whether you’re reading with your fingers or your ears or your eyes–what’s the difference?” asked Edge. The goal in using alternative solutions is to “measure what’s really important.” The real question, she said, is whether these students can comprehend what’s being taught.

Links:

Kurzweil Educational Systems Inc.
http://www.kurzweiledu.com/

Freedom Scientific
http://www.freedomscientific.com/lsg

National Center on Disability and Access to Education
http://www.ncdae.org/

Massachusetts Department of Education
http://www.doe.mass.edu/

Maryland State Department of Education
http://www.marylandpublicschools.org/MSDE

Anne Arundel County Public Schools
http://www.aacps.org/