Can Special Needs Test Scores Accurately Measure Proficiency?

Posted by Big Universe on May 14, 2013 8:00:16 PM


In Measuring Up: What Educational Testing Really Tells Us by Harvard Graduate School of Education, professor Daniel Koretz has a lot of say about our nation’s “high-stakes testing” and the impact of testing special needs students. Maria Fusrao summarizes Koretz’ findings, providing interview video clips and text on Measure for measures: What do standardized tests really tell us about students and schools? The challenge that we face is avoiding misleadingly low or inflated scores -- and if we are in fact testing the same skills. Can we assess if standardized testing can properly demonstrate proficiency? It is a challenge that we need to address.

Testing Limitation 1: Misleadingly Low Scores

Koretz begins by explaining that the test scores have limitations: “scores on those tests have often become misleading, sometimes wildly misleading” and that “we tend to overestimate what tests can do. Tests are not designed to summarize all that students and schools can do.” Ask any teacher, I am sure that he or she will agree that testing competence on one area is only a small portion what what students have learned in a classroom. Add special needs test takers to the mix, and the results can be even more inaccurate. Testing students with special needs is troubling because you need the scores to reflect students’ proficiency, yet Koretz points out that “when students have certain disabilities, their test scores may in fact be misleadingly low.”

Testing Limitation 2: Testing the Same Skills through Testing Accommodations

We also don’t want to go the the other extreme by inflating test scores through accommodations. He explains that “the purpose of an accommodation [larger print, modified room lighting, or a specialized computer screen for vision impaired students] is not to make the students’ scores higher, but to help them score as well as their actual proficiency warrants.” Koretz then speaks of a scenario where a student with dyslexia is tested and suggests that "when the impediments caused by the student’s disability are directly relevant to the knowledge and skills the test is designed to measure," we may not be measuring what the test intended. Koretz points out that the test taker uses different skills: decoding (barrier for that student) or interpreting the meaning of text, so having the text read to him actually changes that test from a reading comprehension to oral language comprehension.

The testing limitations and their implications should give parents and teachers pause. Does Koretz suggest that standardized testing can’t “accurately” measure special needs abilities? If so, it is tough pill to swallow, for teachers and parents of special needs students. Yet Koretz does provide hope: understanding these limitation helps clarify the testing problem, so we can work toward meeting this challenge.

Image courtesy of Keerati at

Topics: Special Education

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