State-wide and District-wide Assessment Accommodations:
Questions and Answers


  1. What is an assessment accommodation?
  2. What kinds of accommodations are available?
  3. Who makes the decision about needed accommodations?
  4. When should accommodations be used?
  5. How do accommodations affect the results of tests?
  6. What principles should guide accommodation decisions?

1. What Is An Assessment Accommodation?

An assessment accommodation is an alteration in the way a test is administered. Accommodations can be categorized into at least six types: setting, presentation, timing, response, scheduling, and other. The "other" category catches any accommodations that a student may need that do not fit neatly into the other five areas.

An assessment accommodation is provided because of a student need, not to give a student an advantage. When students with disabilities use assessment accommodations, it is to show what they know without being impeded by their disabilities. For example, Jody is a student with cerebral palsy who is working toward the same instructional goals or standards as other students in her classroom. To participate in the assessment, she needs a scribe to write her responses and extended time to complete the test. By providing these response and timing accommodations, Jody and other students who previously would have been excluded from assessments are provided the means to participate.

Assessment accommodations are provided for students with disabilities receiving special education services and students on 504 plans. However, not all special education or 504 students will need assessment accommodations. In some states, assessment accommodations are provided to any student for whom a need is demonstrated.

2. What Kinds of Accommodations Are Available?

There is no set of universally approved assessment accommodations. But most people agree that accommodations can be organized into the six categories of setting, presentation, timing, response, scheduling, and other. An abbreviated list of some possible accommodations within each of these categories is presented in Table 1.

Accommodation policies vary tremendously. It is not uncommon to find an accommodation that is allowed in one state yet prohibited in another. Part of the reason for this variability is the lack of a good research base for identifying appropriate accommodations.

Decisions about assessment accommodations should be based on what students need in order to be provided with an equal opportunity to show what they know without impediment of their disabilities. It is important that accommodations do not compromise what the test is measuring. This underscores the importance of making sure decision makers know the purpose of an assessment and the skills or constructs it is trying to measure.

3. Who Makes the Decision?

Most decisions about who needs assessment accommodations should be made by people who know the educational needs of the student -- in most cases, the Individualized Educational Program (IEP) team. This is consistent with the IDEA requirement that the IEP identify accommodations needed in order for the student to participate in an assessment.

Decision makers need to have a complete understanding of the assessment, its purpose, and the skills being measured when deciding who needs accommodations. These factors, together with the student's needs, determine the appropriateness of specific assessment accommodations.

The IEP team also will have to make decisions about the kinds of accommodations that a student needs. For example, should a student be permitted to use a calculator during an assessment? Should the student memorize the formulas, or should these be provided? If a test is measuring the use of formulas to solve problems, then the team may decide that allowing a student to use a calculator, if one is needed, is appropriate. If this same test is measuring a student's ability to apply formulas to derive answers, the team might decide that supplying these formulas would also be appropriate. If however, the test is measuring a student's ability to recall formulas and apply them to calculate correct answers through a step by step process, then the team might decide that neither accommodation is appropriate.

4. When Should Accommodations be Used?

Accommodations should be provided for the assessment when they are routinely provided during classroom instruction. In other words, when classroom accommodations are made so that learning is not impeded by a student's disability, such accommodations generally should be provided during assessment.

The most controversial accommodation decisions involve reading tests to students and writing down student responses. When a reading test is measuring reading decoding, providing a reader compromises what the test is measuring. However, if the purpose of the test is to measure ability to gain understanding or interpret written language, the use of a reader would be appropriate. Similarly, if a student is unable to record complete thoughts in writing due to a disability such as dysgraphia, but is able to verbally express thoughts well, then a tape recorder could be used and later transcribed for scoring purposes, or a scribe might be provided at the time of the test. Not all parts of a test, even within a single content area, necessarily measure the same skill. Hence, it is important to know the purpose of the test and its parts, what is being measured, and what accommodation would be appropriate. No accommodation should be provided to the student for the first time on the day of the test or to provide an unfair advantage.

5. How Do Accommodations Affect the Results of Tests?

There has been much discussion about the impact assessment accommodations have on test results. Although this remains a valid concern, there is little empirical information available that directly addresses this concern.

Several federally funded research efforts are currently underway to investigate the impact of accommodations on test validity and reliability. Until we know more about the impact of assessment accommodations on test results, students with disabilities should be provided needed accommodations. It is better to include and accommodate and look for ways to report test scores than to exclude students.

6. Principles to Guide Decisions About Accommodations

Base decisions on the student's needs.
Decisions about instructional accommodations must be made with the student's needs in mind. It is important that the provision of assessment accommodations is in no way based on the setting in which a student receives services, the type of disability a student has, or the number of classes the student attends in the general education curriculum. The focus must be kept on what, if any, instructional and assessment accommodations the student needs to have an equal footing with students who do not have a disability. The key question to ask is, "How are these accommodations directly linked to the student's learning needs?"

Use a form indicating variables to consider in making accommodation decisions, and document the need for accommodations. A form indicating variables to consider in making accommodation recommendations will help decision makers consider the most relevant variables (e.g., how the student's disability is likely to interfere with performance) rather than irrelevant considerations (e.g., what program the student is in, how well the student is likely to perform). The form used to make decisions should be attached to the student's IEP to provide official documentation about accommodations for instruction, classroom tests, and state or district assessments. Questions that might be used to develop a form for making accommodation recommendations are provided in Table 2.

Have people who know the student make the decisions about accommodations.
Accommodation decisions should be made by people who know the needs of the student. Typically these are teachers, parents, or guardians; most states use IEP teams to make accommodation decisions. People who know the student are able to consider the impact of the student's disability on educational performance within the context of instruction, classroom tests, and district assessments. In addition to being part of the decision process, parents must be made aware of the need for assessment accommodations and any impact of their use in their child's testing program.

Be sure there is alignment between what happens during instruction, classroom testing, and district or state assessment.
The first time a student receives an accommodation should not be on the day of a test or assessment. A needed accommodation is one that is provided throughout the teach-test instructional cycle. Therefore, there should be a natural flow between what occurs in instruction and what is occurring during assessment. In some cases accommodations provided during instruction may not be appropriate for a classroom test or for a state or district assessment situation. For example, providing guided practice and prompts to assist a student in deriving an answer may be appropriate for instruction but not during assessments.

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