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504s, IEPs and SATs, ACTs

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Connecticut students with IEPs: we can help with standardized tests

Can my unique child find success in standardized tests?

The answer is a resounding “YES!” The key lies in a student’s firm understanding of what makes him unique. In the muck and mire of special education terminology, which covers the pages of 504’s and IEP’s, are hidden clues which bely that particular student’s strengths. These same terminologies also determine subsequent accommodations the SAT’s and ACT’s will provide students during testing. In addition to accommodations afforded a particular student by the test organization, that student should also develop distinct strategies to deal with his challenge(s) during the test. With a firm grasp of strengths, accommodations and strategies a student can achieve test scores which accurately reflect her capabilities.
According to the NEA, the number of students receiving special education services has risen thirty percent over the past ten years. In addition, three out of four of these students are spending time in regular classrooms. So, for most of these students, it has been determined that the least restrictive learning environment for them would be in typical peer classrooms as opposed to outplacement or classroom removal for support services. As an extension of their experience in the regular classroom, these students should go on an academic mining mission to discern their own unique learning strengths. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), all children with disabilities are entitled to a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment. As the mother of three sons, one of whom has Dyslexia and ADD and another of whom has Type 1 Diabetes, this law serves many students well. However, because the building block of the law is disability, IDEA unintentionally discounts the notion that many disabilities present with inherent academic strengths.
By the time students with learning disabilities reach their junior year of high school, they are accustomed to their academic journey revolving around the notion of disabilities. Based on how a student is genetically wired, he has faced exceptional challenges in the world of academics. Learning to read may have been difficult. Math may have seemed like a foreign language. As a result, school can seem like an insurmountable uphill battle.Hence, when these same students face SAT’s and ACT’s, they are often defeated before they begin. This does not have to be the case. For instance, when teaching an ACT course with a student population diagnosed with Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) and Non-Verbal Learning Disorder (NVLD), a pointed discussion of academic strengths arose. One of the students exclaimed that “Students who have Asperger’s Syndrome are exceptional at multiple choice tests.” This skill set is paramount because both the SAT and the ACT are multiple choice exams. When asked what strength of AS contributed to this gift, the student was initially puzzled but then posited “We just see the stupid choices and know that the one left is the answer.” Believe it or not, this needs to be taught as a strategy to most students, but is an inherent gift to the student who has AS. Another example involves Dyslexia. Both the SAT and the ACT have elements that require logical rather than formulaic thinking. Students who have Dyslexia are exceptional global thinkers. Hence, this big picture analysis can be a decisive tool to capitalize on when taking the SAT or ACT.
The fact is, learning disabilities are two-sided coins with essential abilities lying in wait. With a firm grasp of those strengths, students can approach the test with increased confidence and achieve results that are commensurate with their capabilities.
The College Board (SAT) and the ACT (ACT) must provide testing accommodations that reflect diagnoses documented in a student’s IEP (Individualized Education Plan) or 504. According to the IDEA Data Accountability Center, in the fall of 2008, 2.5 million students ages 3-21 had SLDs (Specific Learning Disabilities). That statistic translates to a significant number of students who may be eligible for accommodations on test day. It is critical to understand how to effectively utilize awarded accommodations in order to achieve ideal results. The spectrum of accommodations is vast. The most commonly awarded accommodation is extended time to complete the test. However, the list of accommodations can range from use of a laptop to adjusted bubble sheets to use of a tape recorder. The process is a coordinated effort that ideally should involve student, parents and guidance department. The school petitions the college Board for accommodations which reflect accommodations from the student’s ed plan. For instance, a student who has dysgraphia may receive a laptop for the essay as well as the ability to circle in the test booklet rather than transfer his answers to the bubble sheet.
The best scenario involves a candid discussion with the student about his academic needs prior to applying to the testing company. Consider a student who has a processing issue and may receive extra time. At the outset, this seems like a valuable accommodation. However, processing issues often co-exist with ADD, which would likely make the notion of sitting for twice as long a daunting and unproductive task. It is imperative therefore that the team work to develop and petition for accommodations that will best serve the student on test day.
The most effective and successful approach integrates clear distinct strategies within the content sections of each respective test. The genesis of strategies should come from both the student’s learning strengths and challenges. Most students house their strengths in either their left or right brain, so even students who do not have IEP’s or 504’s have academic “blind spots”. The essential task lies in tapping into their well of strengths to defeat the blind spot. For instance, non-linear, math phobic students clearly do not enjoy the math section. However, if the student has strong verbal skills, he can learn to implement those skills to solve word problems within the math section. The student who has comprehension deficits, can pre-highlight text on the SAT.
Strategies are generalized for the tests in the same way athletes, musicians and actors have basics that help them execute during peak performance situations. Yet it is often evident that these peak performers have something extra that makes them successful. As such, students with LD/ED should develop an extra “tool kit” for test day. This customization of strategies impacts not only performance on the particular test, but the decision of which test best suits that student’s capabilities.
For example, within a particular test a student diagnosed with Dyslexia would definitely want an additional strategy during the Critical Reading section of the SAT. The Critical Reading section has Sentence Completions, or vocabulary fill-in-the-blank. That section predicates accurate decoding, which Dyslexics struggle with, in order to fair well. Improper pronunciation of the word “naive” would leave that student at a disadvantage, although he may know the definition if given the word orally.
During the passages, that same student with Dyslexia may opt to underline text references from the questions. In essence, pre-highlighting the text. Underlining is a technique utilized by many students, but the student with Dyslexia is also challenged by a poor working memory and therefore may opt to answer the corresponding question when she gets to that underlined portion. By answering in process, the student rallies against the poor working memory associated with Dyslexia and capitalizes on her strong comprehension skills.
Every student wants to open an envelope and view scores that demonstrate her aptitude. In the path to potential, the student with an IEP or 504 often finds that path winding and overgrown with challenges. In the instance of standardized tests, the path can instead be straightforward. The student must discover the ability of her disability. That disability must subsequently guide the scaffolding of support afforded by the test companies. Finally, the student must generate customized adaptations for the tests and their subsequent subsections.
By Jean Card, Director of Student Mastery, The Learning Consultants, Madison, CT