Definition and Purpose of Testing Accommodations


Steve N. Elliott

STEPHEN N. ELLIOTT is currently a professor of Educational Psychology and a Senior Research Associate in the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at UW-Madison. Professor Elliott is a nationally acclaimed leader in the areas of standards and assessment. He authored over 80 journal articles, 14 books, and 2 widely used behavior rating scales. As a result of his scholarly efforts, Steve was invited to serve on the National Academy of Sciences' Committee on Education Goals 2000 and Students with Disabilities.


Testing accommodations are commonly defined as a change in the way that a test is administered or responded to by the person tested and are intended to offset or "correct" for distortions in scores caused by a disability (McDonnell et al., 1997).

Functions of a Testing Accommodation

Many educators find it difficult to explain the use and technical function of testing accommodations. As a result of numerous discussions about testing accommodations with teachers, parents, and testing experts, let me suggest a couple of metaphors that are useful for thinking about the role and function of testing accommodations.

The first metaphor for testing accommodations concerns eyeglasses. Look around any room with other adults present and you will see at least 1/3 and maybe 1/2 of them wearing eyeglasses to correct for vision impairments. Eyeglasses are an accommodation for imperfect or poor vision. If you wanted to test the natural vision ability of a person who wears glasses for driving and outdoor activities, then wearing glasses during a test of distant vision would invalidate the test score assuming your purpose is to make an inference about the person's natural or uncorrected vision. On the other hand, if your purpose was to determine the same person's driving ability, then wearing the glasses during the driving test that he or she wears daily would be a valid accommodation because it would facilitate a more accurate assessment of the person's driving skills by minimizing or eliminating problems due to vision impairments.

Remember, even in the absence of disabilities or other complicating factors, tests are imperfect measures of the constructs they are intended to assess. Using the same metaphor of a corrective lens, envision a student's "true" competence in reading, for example, as a point on a vertical scale. To one side, is an identical scale of that student's "observed" competence, as reflected by performance on an assessment. Between the two scales is a lens causing some diffraction of light, so that true competence is represented (over repeated measurements) by an array of points on the observed-competence scale that forms a blurry image of the true, unmeasured competence. If the test is well designed, this image will be centered on the "true" value (i.e., it will be unbiased) and it will not be too blurry (i.e., it will be reliable). In summary, testing accommodations are intended to function like a corrective lens that will deflect the distorted array of observed scores back to where they ought to be -- that is, back to where they will provide a more valid image of the performance of individuals with disabilities.

The second metaphor about testing accommodations is an access ramp. As a point of fact, an access ramp can be conceptualized as part of a package of testing accommodations for individuals with significant physical impairments. If individuals can't get to the testing room, then they certainly can't demonstrate what they know or can do! The conceptual value of an access ramp has additional meaning, however, when addressing issues of construct validity. Testing accommodations facilitate access to a test for students with a wide range of disabilities just like a ramp facilitates access to a building for individuals with physical disabilities. The tests that students are required to take are designed to measure some specific target cognitive skills or abilities, such as mathematical reasoning and computations, but almost always assume that students have the skills to access the test, such as attending to instructions, reading story problems, and writing responses. Thus, knowledge and concepts tests like those used in ISTEP+ target broad constructs like mathematics and language arts and are used to determine how students are doing in these subjects. Some students, in particular many students with disabilities, have difficulty with the access skills needed to get "into" the test. Thus, valid testing accommodations, just like an access ramp, should be designed to reduce problems of access to a test and enable students to demonstrate what they know and can do with regard to the skills or abilities the test is targeting.

The Classroom Connection and Testing Accommodations

By now, you should have a good understanding of what testing accommodations are and how they should function to improve the validity of a student's test score. In addition, you should be aware that testing accommodations are sanctioned by federal and state policies, and that IEP team members are responsible for selecting and implementing them for qualified students. But you can legitimately ask, "How do you go about selecting specific testing accommodations for specific students with specific disabilities and well defined instructional plans?" The key to selecting and implementing testing accommodations for an individual student lies in the classroom(s) where that student is taught each day. That is, the instructional and testing accommodations that teachers frequently use to facilitate the teaching-learning interactions for a student are prime candidates as accommodations when that same student is participating in a state-wide or district-wide test. This premise is reasonable, particularly, when there is good alignment between what is taught and tested in the classroom and what is on the state test. This does not mean, however, that all accommodations used to support a student during classroom instruction will result in valid testing accommodations.


Summary: The Role & Functions of Testing Accommodations

Definition: changes to the way a test is administered or responded to by a student. Such changes are often categorized as changes to the setting, timing, scheduling, presentation, and method of responding.

Purposes: To facilitate participation from individuals who have not taken tests in the past and to offset distortions in test scores caused by a disability without invalidating the test results. Also to comply with IDEA and state regulations.

Relation to Classroom Instructional Accommodations: Many appropriate testing accommodations have their basis in the instructional accommodations teachers use daily to facilitate the engagement and responding of a student. In fact, the first places to look for potential testing accommodations is at a student's IEP and the instructional support the student receives in the classroom.

Access Skills vs. Targeted Skills: Testing accommodations facilitate access to a test and should reduce the error in test scores due to poor of weak enabling skills. Appropriate testing accommodations should not change or replace the skills that the test targets or is designed to measure. Example of math story problems: Access skills include attention, reading the problem, writing an answer. Targeted skills include reasoning, computations, and communicating results.

Valid and Reasonable Accommodations - accommodations that minimize or eliminate the error in a test score due to skill deficits in access skills, thus resulting in a more pure or accurate inference about a student's abilities that have been targeted by the test. In addition, these accommodations can be administered by teachers in the school where the student receives most of his/her instruction.

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