Accommodations for Testing Students With Disabilities: Information for Parents
By Sara Bolt, MA
National Center on Educational Outcomes, University of Minnesota
Today’s schools are increasingly being held accountable for student achievement.
demonstrate that teachers provide quality instruction that results in students
making progress toward
Standards Testing for All Students
State- and district-wide assessment programs
have been developed to measure the extent to which
students are acquiring important skills and knowledge. Recent legislation such
as the No Child Left
Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) has created additional requirements for state-wide
testing and demonstrating
student progress. Results from these tests are used to make a variety of important
decisions. In several
states and districts, test results are used in high-stakes decision making
(e.g., student grade promotion,
high school graduation). Tests are typically administered annually to a whole
class at a time in basic
subjects such as reading, math, science, and social studies. Many of these
tests require students to
listen to or read questions and mark or write out their answers, often within
a specified time limit.
All students, including students with disabilities, are expected to participate
in state and district
assessment programs. However, students with disabilities sometimes have trouble
showing what they
know on tests because of very strict rules about how the tests are to be given.
These rules are created
for a good reason: to make sure that the test measures the same skills for
all students. Unfortunately,
these rules can create problems for students with disabilities. For example,
students with print
disabilities (students with visual impairments or those with reading disabilities)
may not be able to show
their knowledge on a math test that is only given in standard print. These
students may need to have the
test read aloud or be provided with a large print or Braille edition of the
As a result of these and similar concerns, testing accommodations are
often necessary in order for
students with disabilities to show their true knowledge on a test. Because
tests are being used more
than ever before to make important decisions about students, classrooms, and
schools, it is important to
make sure that students with disabilities are provided the support they need
on a test so that they can
show what they really know and can do.
A testing accommodation is any change in typical test procedures that allows
disabilities to better show their knowledge. This might include a change in:
the test is presented (Braille, large print, sign language, having test directions
and items read aloud)
- How the student responds (using a computer, marking answers in a test
booklet rather than
responding on a separate “bubble” answer sheet)
- Test scheduling (extended time for a timed test, more frequent breaks,
special time of day)
- Test setting (taking the test individually or in a small group, rather
than with the entire class)
These are just some examples of accommodations that can allow individual
students to better
demonstrate their knowledge. Many other accommodations may also be needed.
Legal Basis for Test Accommodations
Disability legislation such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education
Act requires that
appropriate accommodations be provided to students with disabilities, as
necessary, on state- and
All states have a testing accommodations policy
that describes which accommodations are typically
allowed on the state- and district-wide tests as well as
guidelines for making decisions about testing
accommodations. An online link to any state’s
accommodation policy can be found at the National
Center on Educational Outcomes website. (See
“Websites” section below.)
Almost all students with disabilities take state- and
district-wide tests, either with or without accommodations.
Proposed NCLB regulations suggest that no more
than 1% of all students should take an alternate
assessment, which is an assessment designed only for
students with very significant cognitive disabilities who
cannot take the regular test, even with accommodations.
Decisions about accommodations should be made by
the student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP)
team, which consists of teachers, other school support
personnel, parents, and the student, and then the
decision about accommodation must be documented on
Key Strategies for Testing Accommodations
The following strategies are recommended in order
to help make good decisions about which accommodations
a student should receive:
- Consider the specific needs of your child: As a
parent, you can offer a valuable perspective on what
support your child may need in order to show
knowledge and skill. When making accommodation
decisions, consider what test changes you think will
help your child to demonstrate that knowledge.
Asking children what will help them do well on the
test can also provide valuable information and ideas
about possible testing accommodations.
- Find out whether there are accommodations provided
as a part of your child’s classroom instruction: In
many cases, accommodations that are provided
during instruction can also be provided during a
test. Your child may already be receiving extra time
to complete assignments or may use an audiotape
recording to work through math word problems. If
such accommodations are provided during
instruction, these accommodations can often be
provided during a test.
- When possible, choose accommodations that do not
stray very far from standard conditions: Standard
conditions are used for a reason: to make sure the
same skills and knowledge are tested across all
students who take the test. It is therefore usually
best to provide accommodations that do not stray
too far from standard conditions. For example, it is
often necessary to provide accommodations to
students who cannot use a pencil on a writing test.
Two accommodation options might be having
students use a computer to respond or having
students tell their responses to a teacher. If the
student can write using a computer, this will
probably be a better accommodation option,
because the student will actually be writing, and will
not also have to show good dictating skills, which
might include spelling words when speaking and
explaining where punctuation belongs. Similarly, if
a student can read and understand a test, but needs
more time to read, it will probably be more
appropriate to have the student read the test with
extra time rather than to use a “read-aloud”
accommodation, in which a teacher reads the test to
the student. Of course, this must be weighed
against several factors. For example, if the student
is an extremely slow reader, and will likely perform
better if the test were read aloud, the read-aloud
accommodation might be more appropriate. When
making accommodation decisions like these, always
strive for a plan that provides an appropriate
balance between meeting your child’s needs and
testing under standard conditions.
- Check to be sure that the accommodation helps your
child: Sometimes accommodations are not helpful
to students. It is always wise to have teachers verify
that an accommodation does not interfere with your
child’s performance and is in fact helpful.
- Be aware of how the accommodation decision may
affect future student opportunities: In some states, a
student must take the test under standard
conditions in order to receive a standard diploma.
Accommodated test scores are sometimes reported
differently than those for non-accommodated
administrations. Accommodated test scores may or
may not be included in overall school scores, and
may be reported in a way that makes it difficult to
compare performance across schools and students.
It is important to understand all such related
consequences of providing accommodations when
making individual decisions. It is always best to
make sure that your child has the opportunity to
take the test under standard conditions if this might
increase future opportunities. It is also important to
advocate for policies that will allow your child to use
appropriate accommodations on tests.
- Make sure that all relevant professionals are part
of the decision-making process: Get input from as
many different professionals and family members as
possible about how your child can best show
knowledge and skills. Make sure that all current
teachers (both regular and special education) are
part of the decision-making process for your child.
It also is important that your child communicates
ideas and thoughts about what accommodations
might be helpful.
- Make accommodation decisions annually: Your
child’s needs often change from year to year. It is
best to annually reconsider which (if any) testing
accommodations are needed.
Key Strategies for Administering Testing
If it is decided that your child needs accommodations:
- Make sure that someone at the school is responsible
for your child’s testing accommodations: Testing
days can be very hectic days for schools. It is always
best to make sure that there is one person at the
school responsible for your child’s accommodations.
This way, your child can be sure to get the accommodations
that are needed.
- Make sure that your child feels comfortable with
the accommodations, and has received the appropriate
accommodations during instruction: If students have
never received accommodations before the testing
day, they may not know how to make the best use of
them. For instance, if a child is supposed to use a
computer to respond to a test, but does not know
how to use it, the child will probably not perform
very well on the test. Make sure that your child has
had experience using the accommodations that will
be used on the test. Usually this means providing
the same accommodation during your child’s
instruction, such as using a computer to complete
- Those who are administering your child’s
accommodations should be well trained: Some
accommodations need to be provided by a test
proctor. For example, some students have a test
read aloud by a teacher or dictate their responses to
a scribe. It is important for those who provide
accommodations to know how to best administer
them. Training is sometimes necessary for these
people to do their job well, and to make sure that
they do not confuse or bias student responses.
- Make sure your child knows why accommodations
are provided, and how to advocate for
accommodations in future settings: Help your child
to understand that accommodations can help in
demonstrating true abilities on tests. Many
accommodations that your child may receive during
instruction and testing can be applied in future
- Help your child understand how to advocate for
accommodations, as needed, in college and
employment settings: Simple accommodations may
be exactly what are needed for your child to be
successful in today’s world.
Council for Exceptional Children. (2000). Making assessment
accommodations video: A guide for families.
Arlington, VA: Author. ISBN: 0-86586-963-4.
Elliott, S. N., Braden, J. P., & White, J. L. (2001).
Assessing one and all: Educational accountability for
students with disabilities. Arlington, VA: Council for
Exceptional Children. ISBN: 0-86586-375-X.
Elliott, S. N., Kratochwill, T. R., & Gilbertson, A. (1998).
The assessment accommodations guide. Monterey,
CA: CTB/McGraw-Hill. (Available for purchase at
Thurlow, M., & Elliott, J. (2000). Improving test
performance of students with disabilities. Thousand
Oaks, CA: Corwin Press. ISBN: 0-76197-550-4.
Thurlow, M., Elliott, J., & Ysseldyke, J. (2002). Testing
students with disabilities: Practical strategies for
complying with district and state requirements (2nd
ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press. ISBN: 0-
Federation for Children with Special Needs—
National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO)—
Sara Bolt, MA, is a doctoral candidate in the School
Psychology Program at the University of Minnesota and a
research assistant at the National Center on Educational
© 2004 National Association of School Psychologists, 4340 East West Highway,
Suite 402, Bethesda, MD 20814—(301) 657-0270.