Wednesday, December 11, 2013


by Tom Chorneau  |  SI&A Cabinet Report |

December 11, 2013  (Wash.)   ::  Among the improvements anticipated with the new Smarter Balanced assessment system, set for rollout in many states next year, are a variety of embedded accommodations for students with disabilities.

From a text-to-speech option to color contrast and magnification tools, the new computer-based tests have been developed in an effort to serve all students based on their visual, auditory, linguistic and physical needs.

“In a paper-pencil world, if a student needed a larger font – you couldn’t do that – but in a universally-designed, computer-based world, automatically, the font can be enlarged,” said Fred Balcom, director of the Special Education Division at the California Department of Education.

Launched in 2010 with a $176 million federal grant, Smarter Balanced is one of two state-led consortia developing the new Common Core-aligned assessments, expected to be used in 27 states including California, Nevada, Washington, Michigan and Connecticut.

In advance of the 2014-15 completion date, the test development team has released guidelines to the program’s many accommodation tools. Although the primary target is special education teachers, as well as participants on Individualized Education Program teams, some of the system’s features can be offered to any student who might need additional support.

As currently envisioned, the test program provides a set of “universal tools” that would be available to all students to select and use at their own discretion.

An on-screen calculator, for instance, could be accessed for some test items when consistent with testing objectives. There’s a digital notepad for temporary text storage. There’s also a dictionary, a digital highlighter, a ruler and protractor. There’s even a spell check system that alerts a student when a word is incorrect although it stops short of providing a correction.

The array of “universal” tools are only available during appropriate test segments – the calculator, for example, cannot be accessed during the math section.

A second, more restricted set of tools, called “designated supports,” would be offered if indicated as necessary either by the teacher or IEP team.

Color contrasting, aimed at students with attention difficulties, is one option in the “designated” category – allowing the student to adjust the screen background or font color including reversing the entire screen. A variety of text-to-speech tool gives support to students who are struggling readers as well as students whose primary language is not English.

The last and most restricted test tools are called “accommodations,” which are defined as changes in the procedures or materials that “increase equitable access” during testing. Unlike modifications, these changes are not considered significant enough to invalidate the test results for federal and state accountability purposes.

A translation of the test in American Sign Language, for instance, has been embedded into the test. Test content can also be delivered in braille and through closed captioning.

The list of tools was developed in consultation with a number of experts and advocacy groups including the Council for Exceptional Children, the National Center for Learning Disabilities and the Center for Applied Special Technology. Officials at Smarter Balanced in a FAQ, said the list is subject to change, noting that a standing committee will be established to review suggestions for adjusting the services.

Member states also have the ability to issue temporary approvals of unique accommodations for individual students. They also acknowledge that states may elect not to make available all of the accommodation tools in the test system based on state law.

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