Tests are certainly not the only — nor are they the best — way to measure learning, but they are an unavoidable part of school life for most children in the United States. Beyond classroom exams and quizzes, many students need to take annual statewide tests in public and some private schools. While some experts debate the efficacy of standardized tests, most K–12 schools continue to use these assessments to measure student achievement.
For many children with learning disabilities and differences or attention difficulties such as ADHD, such tools cannot provide an accurate assessment of students’ true learning. These kids may need one or more types of testing accommodations in order to demonstrate their achievement.
Eligibility for Testing Accommodations
One means of determining eligibility for testing accommodations is through a psycho-educational or neuro-psychological evaluation, which may be provided by a child’s school or arranged through a private provider. Such evaluations use a variety of tools — like puzzles, math games, and spoken and written work — to identify different learning difficulties and help diagnose a disability that is interfering with a child’s educational achievement. Often, such a determination lays the groundwork for an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), and testing accommodations will frequently be among the resulting recommendations.
A child who has learning difficulties but does not qualify for an IEP — as is the case for many students with ADHD or visual or hearing impairments — may still require educational supports like testing accommodations. For these students, 504 plans are the mechanism for ensuring that children receive the learning services they need to achieve academically. Eligibility is determined through an evaluation conducted by a licensed school psychologist or by an independent psychiatrist.
Many experts recommend including students in discussions about the types of supports they may need. While it sounds obvious, kids are usually acutely aware of their academic struggles; bringing students into the conversation early is key to tailoring support services appropriately.
Matching Accommodations and Disabilities
Testing accommodations vary according to student needs, and should therefore be designed to address the characteristics of a specific child’s disability or learning challenge. Below are a few relatively common challenges and some effective supports for students who experience these difficulties.
Slow Processing Speed
For children who have slow processing speed relative to their IQ, extended time on tests is an effective accommodation. For example, a 60-minute exam would be administered over 90 or 120 minutes to allow these students to understand the material being tested. Often, children with processing challenges have mastered the concepts but require a longer timeframe than their peers to demonstrate their learning. It’s important to note that both gifted children and those with other learning differences can experience this difficulty.
While there is no standard guideline, students who have ADHD may need frequent breaks (e.g., between sections of a lengthy test), or they may benefit from using fidgets — that is, small objects for self-regulation — to enable their brains to re-focus during tests. Many of these children also benefit from a separate room with few distractions (and typically few other students).
Reading and Writing Disabilities
For students with a specific learning disability in reading and writing such as dyslexia or dysgraphia, there are a number of effective accommodations, such as reading directions or passages aloud (although for tests that explicitly assess reading comprehension or fluency, this support is not typically available).
Children with reading and writing disabilities may also benefit from extended time on tests to allow them to decode or comprehend what they read, and to formulate written responses. In addition, electronic spell-checkers or other types of assistive technology may be suitable for students who would benefit from entering responses on a computer rather than on paper.
For students with a specific learning disability in math known as dyscalculia, accommodations may include use of a standard or graphing calculator to allow students to focus on concepts rather than calculations. Students may also be provided with extended time to allow them to work through math problems and demonstrate their mastery without rushing.
Memory or Visual Processing Disorder
Students who have difficulties with working memory or visual processing may be permitted to write directly into a test booklet so that they don’t have to rely on memory to retain information. They may also be allowed to record answers directly in their test booklets to avoid the visual challenge of entering responses on a bubble answer sheet.
Are Testing Accommodations a Type of Cheating?
Some people ask if testing accommodations are a form of cheating, and educators and experts alike agree that the answer is a resounding “No!” Most accommodations don’t help typically-developing learners, and not all accommodations help students with learning disabilities. In fact, according to an article by Drs. Stephen Luke and Amanda Schwartz, “lowered scores appear to result when accommodations are poorly matched to student need.”
Students who have learning disabilities or differences need specific supports in order to play on a level field with their typically developing peers. For that reason, testing accommodations are designed to provide supports in areas where children’s physical or neurological conditions prevent them from demonstrating their learning.
Your child will still require strategies to prepare for an exam and to become familiar with his or her accommodations. For example, students often need explicit instruction around what to do with extra time on a test. Using an accommodation repeatedly in advance will help your child become more self-aware and adept at pacing.
A Final Thought
Before students are given testing accommodations, a parent, psychologist, or teacher should sit down with a child to explain why these supports are necessary — and helpful. In his book Thinking Differently, David Flink described how using a computer to take notes in class not only provided a classroom accommodation that he needed, but also made his learning difference visible — to himself and to his classmates.
One of my favorite moments of the school year occurred while I was proctoring for students who were taking a test in a separate classroom from typically developing peers. I overheard them explain to one another why they were in this room together: “I just need to take lots of breaks during a test or I get really unfocused because of my ADHD,” said one girl. A boy responded, “I have dyslexia, so I think this will help me have enough time to read.”
It is essential to create opportunities for students to acknowledge, accept, and share how they learn best and which areas their learning disabilities and differences affect. Receiving testing accommodations is one way to accomplish this goal — and it has the added benefit of providing children with the supports they need to demonstrate their achievement accurately.