The State of State Assessment

At the annual ATIA conference in January, thought-leaders from several leading assistive technology (AT) companies, as well as Pearson and Smarter Balanced, formed a panel to discuss state assessments and the challenges in providing an equal and equitable experience for persons with disabilities as outlined in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The 90-minute discussion was moderated by Joy Zabala from the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) and covered a range of topics including the variety of interpretations of ESSA, the differences in accommodations from state to state, and the conflict between accessibility and security during assessments. 

Keep reading to learn more about some of the key challenges and promising solutions when it comes to state assessments.

The Language of an Act

Image of a Texthelper with a satchel and a computer keyboard in the background

ESSA states that “students with disabilities-as defined by IDEA or Sec 508- taking the general assessment must be provided appropriate accommodations, which may include the use of assistive technology ‘necessary to measure the academic achievement’”. But it was clear from the panel discussion that terms like ‘appropriate’ and ‘may’ leave ESSA open to interpretation. As a result, the allowable accommodations vary greatly across the country. 

Even terms like “reading” or “decoding text” have multiple interpretations, which can directly impact what accomodations are allowed in each state. AT practitioners understand that the ability to decode text can be based on a student’s ability to see, hear, articulate, and respond. However, depending on the definition the individual state uses, there can be extreme variations in the standards that are put in place, often leaving teams at odds with each other.

With such broad variations in how ESSA is interpreted, more questions than answers can (and do) arise. And this panel discussion was no exception. 

Security is Paramount

Adding to these complexities is the need for security during assessments, which often trumps accessibility. Technology is typically seen as a means of leveling the playing field for students with learning disabilities. However, during an exam, states often limit the use of technology (i.e. the Internet) by requiring students to take the test in Kiosk Mode to keep the testing environment secure.

This poses a challenge for AT providers/manufactures that have built cloud-based solutions, which require Internet access to deliver necessary supports. As you can imagine, this creates a stalemate between the Special Education teams that want to give their students the appropriate accommodations, and the antiquated state laws that prevent access to instructional supports that are delivered and designed for the 21st century.

All Hope is Not Lost

One of the highlights of the panel discussion came when the Pearson representative announced that they would be partnering with Google and several AT vendors (including Texthelp) to enable supports in Kiosk Mode on Chromebooks, PCs, and Macs starting in the Fall of 2020. This is a huge victory for schools looking to provide access to accommodations like Text to Speech, Word Prediction and Speech to Text within the offline testing environment. 

Partnerships like this between testing providers and technology providers may be the glimmer of hope attendees of the panel session hoped they would walk away with. And it may be the answer to accessible state assessments that we’ve all been longing for.

In summary, “The State of State Assessment” is progressing in the right direction. As a vendor that has heard first-hand how frustrating it is for schools that are trying to do the right thing by their students, we are extremely excited that technology and valuable partnerships are finally making ESSA a reality.

To learn more about our partnership with Google and Pearson and how it can make state assessments accessible for all, check out these recent blog posts:

From pop quiz to final exam: Chromebooks pass the test

TestNav Extension Support to bridge the accessibility gap for high-stakes testing