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What I am mad about this month–Standardized tests and accommodation
By Leigh Clemons

A recent NYT article (18 March 2002) discussed a growing problem in the ever-widening field of standardized testing. It seems that the state of California has decided that, regardless of the accommodations a student has received in the classroom during his/her elementary and secondary education, when it comes to the required proficiency tests for graduation, the kid is on his/her own. There will be no accommodations–no readers, calculators, keyboards. Nothing.

Let’s just leave aside, for the moment, the fact that standardized tests no more measure knowledge gained than wearing Nikes measures how well one plays basketball. These tests not only reduce “education” to the memorization of answers and patterns needed to perform well in the testing room, they also insure that the entire academic year curriculum revolves not around providing students with unique social and cultural experiences designed to increase their understanding of how the world works, for good or ill, and their roles as productive and civic-minded individuals within said world, but instead focuses on those two weeks in February (or March or April, depending on where you live) when students are measured not on the quality of their individual knowledge and learning but on how well they perform exactly like everyone else.

It is this “one size fits none” approach to measuring learning outcomes that disability accommodation, among other student-centered learning initiatives, had started to undo over the past decade. Because of the accommodations for students with disabilities implicitly mandated by the ADA, educators at all levels had begun to take the needs and viewpoints of all students into account when designing curriculum and course assessments. This is not the same thing as equating the student with the corporate customer who is “always right;” rather, students are encouraged through the use of technology, service projects, and alterative assignment formats to link their real-life experiences to the learning goals of a particular course. As a university professor who has implemented these types of assignments in her courses, I can personally attest to the fact that students, ALL students, learn more and learn better when they are given a wide array of learning strategies to challenge and empower them inside the classroom and out.

This is why it is so ironic that disability accommodation has become a flashpoint in the standardized test debate. Accommodations such as portfolios, presentations, and other “non-traditional” forms of assessment have long been used in fields such as my own (theatre) for evaluating progress, adherence to standards, and that mythical intangible, “talent.” In other fields, the use of readers and electronic devices are long-standing means of insuring that persons with disabilities have a reasonably level playing-field from which to work. More students are learning not only different forms of knowledge, but also different formats in which that knowledge can be presented, thereby insuring that a larger swath of the population can benefit from innovations in medicine, technology, and other advances, simply because more people will now know about them.

The recent rush to utilize standardized tests as a euphemism for “standards” themselves has a long history–from the achievement tests of ancient grade-school memory to the college and gradutate-school entrance exams of today. The gender, ethnic and racial biases in these tests have long been the subject of debate, and in fact the state of California is in the process of dropping the SAT as a college admissions requirement because the Board of Regents of the UC system want a test that more accurately assesses what California students learn in secondary school. Advocates for standardized tests (among them our President, who made them de facto in the state of Texas during his stint as governor) tout that achieving high scores on said tests will raise the quality of education in the United States. What standardized tests do in reality, however, is both privilege a specific body of information (not knowledge) and examination format accessible only to a specific strata of the population (usually white, male, and upper-middle class, and certainly not disabled), and then force those outside of this paradigm to spend their time “teaching for the test” in order to attempt to match those standards. In the case of those students with disabilities, the effect is even worse because these students can use alternative formats such as readers, calculators, and other forms of technology in all other aspects of their education, including test preparation, but then must, at least at the California high school achievement tests, leave these things at the door and go it alone. Message: it’s okay to request accommodation so long as it doesn’t interfere with your ability to appear to be like everyone else.

Now, supposedly the designers of the California tests have said that students might, eventually, be able to use accommodations on the test, but that their diplomas should then reflect that they did not “really” pass the test. What a crock. Supposedly the ADA and its (where in existence) state counterparts forbid the disclosure of a person’s disability as it may adversely affect one’s ability to secure employment. Under this logic, however, anyone who requests a copy of a high-school transcript or diploma will first learn NOT that the potential employee/student was an imaginative, intelligent, and gifted individual whose “education” reached beyond the traditional classroom, but that he/she is somehow “deficient.” How would you like to apply for a job with those odds? If students and parents wish neither to take the test without accommodation or have the accommodation noted on the student’s transcript, they have two choices: transfer to a private school for the student’s graduation year (where the test is not yet required for graduation) or sue. In fact, the legislators who implemented the test expect the issue to be resolved by the courts. Given the Supreme Court’s recent track record on disability issues and accommodations (I believe we are 0 for 3 at the moment), that particular avenue does not fill me with positive vibes and unmitigated optimism.

I am not opposed to assessment and standards. In fact, I sit on the assessment committees in both of my university departments and do so by choice. I believe that our educational system is worthless unless we, as educators, find ways to determine what students have learned and how this learning affects their overall mindset and insist that they adhere to rigorous criteria for their application and reflection upon them. But standardized tests are not the answer, and couching discrimination against persons with disabilities who, with minor accommodation, can otherwise be productive and innovative learners and contributors to society, under the rhetoric of educational “fairness” is just another example of how society, and the government STILL do not take the issues of accommodation, and persons with disabilities themselves, seriously. If this is the glorious future of education promised by our current administration, if this is what W means when he says “no child [will be] left behind,” then I must ask myself: who, in fact, are the children of whom he speaks?

Next time: why I will not have an organ transplant, or how the pharmaceutical industry keeps transplant recipients in economic slavery....