Many adults hear the term standardized test and they see bubble sheets and number two pencils, alongside a multitude of questions inside neat test booklets.

Things have changed.

Today, modern, computer-based tests are taken online and the new assessments – they’re not called tests anymore – tend to create a fair number of questions for parents and educators, especially for those working with students with special needs. Maryland Learning Links had the opportunity to sit down with Nancy Schmitt and Karl Marty, of the Maryland State Department of Education Division of Special Education and Early Intervention Services to discuss the new PARCC and NCSC assessments.

What are common misconceptions around accommodations?

Schmitt and Marty: The biggest misconception is that accommodations make instruction easier for kids. The reality is accommodations allow kids to have greater access to the content. It is not easier. For example, I wear glasses. Without them I can’t see. Glasses allow me to read. The words on the page don’t change. They remain the same; it is just that now with the glasses, I have the same opportunity to read them as someone who doesn’t need glasses.

To put it another way, I once saw a cartoon that I thought illustrated this perfectly. It showed three boys of three different heights trying to look over a fence to watch a baseball game. In the first panel of the cartoon only the tallest boy could see. In the second panel the boy of middle height is standing on a crate so he could see. This gives the smallest boy an idea. In the last panel the smallest boy has gotten an even bigger crate than the middle boy and now all three boys are equally enjoying the game.

What kinds of accommodation supports work with PARCC assessments?

Schmitt and Marty: There are a lot of assessments built right into the test. There is audio amplification, text-to-speech applications, a line reader tool that allows for magnification up to 300 percent, a color contrast option, screen reader versions for the blind and refreshable braille. All are accessible to all students. Some need to be turned on in advance. Some are readily available.

How do you suggest teachers with special needs kids introduce the accommodations?

Schmitt and Marty: Kids should be prepped for the test and not try to figure it out on test day. The PARCC site includes tutorials and practice tests that use all the accommodations that kids can use ahead of time. And we wouldn’t suggest they do it just once. Kids should try a few times so they can use it all easily during assessment.

What has the shift to computers done to testing accommodations?

Schmitt and Marty: It has been huge. It levels the playing field and standardizes the administration of the test.

What is the difference between an accommodation allowed in the classroom and an allowable accommodation on the PARCC assessment?

Schmitt and Marty: We are big believers that all accommodations should be available in classroom instruction and assessment. Unfortunately, there are some discrepancies between the states on PARCC. Maryland is a little different than some other PARCC states.

How so?

Schmitt and Marty: In some places text-to-speech and human readers are not allowed on the PARCC literacy test. Here in Maryland, we have widened the accommodation to allow more kids to be eligible to use the text-to-speech reader. We believe if students have a disability that affects their ability to decode or comprehend what they read, they are eligible to use the text-to-speech. PARCC’S standard is slightly different in their wording. PARCC maintains a child can use the reader function only if that child has a disability to decode printed text significantly.

That’s a big difference. How are you making parents and teachers aware of their rights to use that accommodations?

Schmitt and Marty: We have been promoting this with webinars for parents. We have fielded 100s of calls. It hasn’t been easy and won’t be until guidelines are in sync.

What can teachers be doing day-to-day in their classrooms with allowable accommodations to ensure their students can use them on the PARCC tests?

Schmitt and Marty: It goes back to instruction and assessment and not separating the two. If you are teaching and using the MD College and CareerReadiness Standards, all the strategies you use to teach should have those accommodations built in. In reality all the strategies you use to teach should have accommodations. If a child has text-to-speech, they should be using that accommodation so it’s not new on the assessment.

Can you offer some tips for what is good general support for all kids?

Schmitt and Marty: These are pretty general guidelines but helpful for all kids:

1. Read the test first. 2. Skip what you don’t know and go back to it later. 3. If it is a multiple choice test and you know answer number two and three are not right, use the mask tool, available to all students, to cancel out ones you are sure you can remove. 4. Read the questions first and then the long passage before answering the questions. 5. And remember tools are fun to use, so use them!!

Now we’re going to switch gears here and find out about NCSC? What is the NCSC exactly?

Schmitt and Marty: NCSC is The National Center and State Collaborative. It is a multi‐state comprehensive assessment system for students with significant cognitive disabilities. It is actually a full system, which includes formative assessment tools and strategies, professional development on appropriate uses of data for progress monitoring, and management systems to ease the burdens of administration and documentation.

Are you using it now?

Schmitt and Marty: Maryland piloted the assessment but has not formally signed on to use it. The State Department of Education wanted to wait a year so that districts were not overwhelmed with having to implement the PARCC and NCSC at the same time.

What is the timing for its roll-out?

Schmitt and Marty: 400 kids were tested last year in select schools.

What did the kids think of it?

Schmitt and Marty: The kids we talked to were happy at being able to take it on a computer and to have just one test. One shot and done. What’s great is that there is a lot of flexibility with the administration of this. All kids that are on certificate track will be assessed using it this spring in grades 3-8 and 11 in English and Math.

What strategies can teachers use to identify a child’s best means of communication for the NCSC?

Schmitt and Marty: The instructional framework stresses communicative competence. It helps build the basis for what the teachers need to really focus on first – developing a communication mode with their students. Teachers really like it because it addresses communication issues. In the past, teachers had to focus more on curriculum but with NCSC that is now changing. For example, five to ten years ago communication boards were mostly used by kids who pointed to nouns without describing words, but now there is a focus on communication and core vocabulary that promotes a richness of language.

Can you offer some strategies for how teachers can determine links between behavior and communication?

Schmitt and Marty: Most every behavior, even the simplest, has a message behind it. Teachers need to determine what those messages are and communication can flow.

What are some Common misconceptions about the NCSC?

Schmitt and Marty: I think that because this instructional framework is aligned with Maryland College and Career Readiness Standards, people think they are the same. They are different and teachers that have looked at it really like it. Right now there is a big focus toward inclusion in the General Education classroom. This aligned curriculum will allow both General and Special Education to focus on the same standards.

Can you define the phrase “presumed competence” and relate that to a new way of reaching all kids in the General Education classroom?

Schmitt and Marty: “Presumed competence” means teaching and approaching all students from the idea that all are competent and can master the material. It is about inclusion. Rather than having kids with disabilities work toward random tasks in a portfolio, we want them to show that they can reach grade level standards in an alternative way.