Computer-based tests can help at-risk students – report


Computer-based assessments can help the most vulnerable students, according to a new report.

New tests created by Smarter Balanced and Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) accommodate the needs of students with disabilities and English language learners – reducing the need for special help or an aide, according to a report from the Center for American Progress released last week.

All students have access to digital glossaries, notepads, calculators and zoom in and out functions, and they can change the background and foreground colors on the screen to contrast certain information. Students with disabilities and English language learners can take advantage of closed captioning services, computer-based Braille, and translation to other languages and dialects. There are written test directions in 10 languages, and text and audio glossaries in more than 11 languages.

“The ability to have the access to some of the assessments, at least in the student’s native language, is very helpful,” said Scott Sargrad,
co-author of the report and managing director of K-12 education policy at CAP.

Sargrad added that he and other researchers specifically wanted to study how the tests affected more underserved populations of students. They sought information from PARCC and Smarter Balanced, and consulted with advocacy groups like the National Center for Learning Disabilities, the National Disability Rights Network, the National Council of La Raza, the Migration Policy Institute, and experts from the University of Miami and University of New Mexico.

“The tests are trying to avoid some of the barriers to accessibility on the front end,” Sargrad said in an interview with EdScoop. “Things like being able to change the font size of the test, being able to block out answers and review them one at a time, can help students with learning disabilities. Having things like Braille and American Sign Language available [and] embedded in the test, it’s a really big step forward for students with disabilities.”

The new features, which were not so widely available and accessible in paper-based tests, allow at-risk students to take the yearly assessments with the rest of their peers rather than face the stigma of being singled out or separated from their class.

“Test takers can choose which supports they need in collaboration with their teacher or [Individualized Education Program] team in an inclusive testing environment,” the report reads.

For example, an English language learner can wear headphones to listen to a translated glossary while another student with a reading disability can use the headphones to cancel out noise.

Samantha Batel, co-author of the report and policy analyst, said the tests offer an inclusiveness and accessibility to students that are not usually found in traditional exams.

“A closer look at the new assessments developed by PARCC and Smarter Balanced show the breadth of thoughtful universal design features that have been incorporated to make test taking more dynamic and user-friendly for all students,” Batel said in a press release.

Researchers also noted some challenges. At times, there are inconsistencies between the standards created by test developers and assistive technology vendors, both of which must ensure that students can access the special features.

“States must create clarity for districts around state-approved accommodations,” the report states. “Schools and parents need more local information to better understand available supports.”

In addition, lack of computer literacy affects students across the country. Maryland launched computer-based assessments for the first time last year, and a state analysis showed that students who took the tests on paper received higher scores than those who took PARCC tests, according to the Baltimore Sun. Officials said that students’ unfamiliarity with the new test interface could have contributed to lower results.

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