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Beyond the Scantron: Special Education Expert Sheryl Lazarus on How Fair, High-Quality Tests Have Led to Improved Instruction for Students With Disabilities and English Learners

By Anne Wicks and William McKenzie | September 22, 2020

(Brianna Soukup / Getty Images)

This piece is part of “Beyond the Scantron: Tests and Equity in Today’s Schools,” a three-week series produced in collaboration with the George W. Bush Institute to examine key elements of high-quality exams and illuminate why using them well and consistently matters to equitably serve all students. Read all the pieces in this series as they are published here. Read our previous accountability series here.

Sheryl Lazarus serves as director of the National Center for Educational Outcomes at the University of Minnesota. Her research concentrates on special education policies for students with disabilities, English language learners and other populations.

Sheryl Lazarus

Lazarus spoke with us about how students with disabilities and English learners need appropriate accommodations for standardized testing. But, she says, quality assessments have shown how the student populations she studies can perform academically. And those tests have improved instruction for the populations she focuses on in her work.

What do you consider the essentials of a high-quality summative assessment?

My focus is on English learners, students with disabilities and other special populations. So, for me, a quality summative assessment is one that aligns with the Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing that were developed by the American Educational Research Association, the American Psychological Association and the National Council on Measurement in Education. It contains several chapters that address what a fair assessment would entail.

That’s important because a high-quality summative assessment used for accountability should be a fair assessment, one that is inclusive of the entire population for which it is intended. And it needs to be accessible so students can show what they know and can do.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act indicates that all students with disabilities should be participating in all state and district assessments. And most will participate in the general assessment with or without accommodations. Yet there needs to be an alternate assessment for those unable to participate in the general assessment, with or without accommodations.

How do you make tests fair for English language learners or students with disabilities?

Many English learners and students with disabilities may need accommodations. So, for an English learner, a pop-up glossary that defines some key words might be helpful. Or maybe they need a longer time to finish the test. Similarly, many students with disabilities may need accommodations to meaningfully access a test.

Why are summative tests important for these populations?

Summative tests measure school and district performance. When the purpose is to measure the effectiveness of the school in helping all students, including students with disabilities and English learners, reach high standards, then having these students participate in the test is important. Some people say things haven’t gone well related to these summative tests. But a real plus of these assessments is that they’ve really shone a light on the differences across subgroups. And they have led to improvements in access to instruction for students with disabilities and English learners.

What do we risk when we don’t pay attention to this?

We risk all of the incredible gains that we’ve had over recent years. We risk lowering the improved outcomes for students with disabilities and English learners that have occurred over the last 15 to 20 years. Inclusion of students with disabilities and English learners in summative tests used for accountability allows us to measure how well the system is doing for these students, and then it is possible to fill in gaps in instructional opportunity. There’s still a long way to go, but we’ve made so much progress. It would be incredibly sad if we again lowered expectations for these kids.

What innovations in testing are you interested in or excited that they might be coming?

I have been excited about the shift to technology-based assessments. They’ve made assessments more accessible to many students with disabilities. For example, pretty much any child can increase font size as part of the platform.

By the same token, I’m concerned that as we move to more innovative test items, some students with disabilities and English learners may lack the accommodations to access those innovative items. For example, too often test developers haven’t figured out how visually impaired students or students who are deaf or hard of hearing can access some types of innovative items.

As we move towards more technologically based assessments, it’s important to ensure those items are accessible to students with disabilities and English learners.

The same is true with distance education, and possibly administering some assessments remotely. It may be challenging for some students with disabilities to access needed accommodations under those scenarios, particularly when they require a human to administer them.

Anne Wicks is the Ann Kimball Johnson Director of the George W. Bush Institute’s Education Reform Initiative.

William McKenzie is senior editorial advisor at the George W. Bush Institute.

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