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Doing Your Homework:
Accommodations on High-Stakes Tests

by Sue Whitney, Research Editor, Wrightslaw

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Note: Congress has reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the statute formerly known as No Child Left Behind. The new statute, Every Student Succeeds Act, was signed into law by President Obama on December 10, 2015.


I am a special education teacher. My administrators are saying that if a child receives accommodations on the state assessment, the student will receive a "0". This will lower the school and sub-group score. Therefore, we are being "encouraged" to not recommend accommodations.

What about the 5th grader who is reading at the 1st grade level? How painful and frustrating will this test be for him? He will not be able to demonstrate what he knows.

Why can't his test be scored with accommodations? Isn't it discriminatory to give him a "0" because he got legal accommodations based on his needs? Can you recommend any resources for addressing these questions?

Sue Responds

As you know, an accommodation is something the school provides to ensure that a child with a disability has access to an education. Accommodations include a wheelchair ramp, extended time on a test, a fatter pencil, and so forth. If the child's IEP or 504 plan calls for these accommodations in other school situations, they may be called for on a statewide test where the score is reported for accountability under No Child Left Behind.

However, if the "accommodation" actually accommodates the child's lack of knowledge, the child's score cannot be counted. This would have the same effect as if the child did not take the test at all. An alternate test or out-of-level test that does not test grade level knowledge will also have the same result, for accountability purposes, as if the child did not take the test.[1]

The child can certainly have the accommodations called for in his IEP or 504. But if the accommodations result in him taking a test that does not test grade level knowledge, his score will not be counted for the disability subgroup or the school as a whole.

NCLB: Assessments Measure Proficiency

The purpose of the No Child Left Behind Act is to ensure that all children are proficient in reading, math and science by 2014.[2] The purpose of the testing required under No Child Left Behind is to determine the percentage of children who have been educated to proficiency in the school as a whole and for specific subgroups.

Hopefully, publicly reporting scores on these tests will make people aware that many children with disabilities are not being taught to grade level. Perhaps this will focus public attention on the fact that many IEPs do not call for the instruction necessary to bring a child to grade level and keep him there. Failing to teach disabled children to grade level will be reported publicly and will finally have a financial impact on school districts.

IDEA 2004: Accommodations and Alternate Assessments

When Congress reauthorized IDEA, they added new language about accommodations, accommodations guidelines and alternate assessments. According to IDEA 2004, the child's IEP must include:

"a statement of an individual appropriate accommodations that are necessary to measure the academic achievement and functional performance of the child on State and districtwide assessments ..."

"If the IEP Team determines that the child shall take an alternate assessment on a particular State or districtwide assessment of student achievement, a statement of why --
(AA) the child cannot participate in the regular assessment; and
(BB) the particular alternate assessment is appropriate for the child." 20 U.S.C. 1414(d)(1)(A)(i)
(page 100, Wrightslaw: Special Education Law)

Using Test Information to Get Appropriate Instruction

I don't think the pain and frustration this child feels will be less, no matter what you do on the day of the test. He must be fully aware that he cannot read.

My advice?

Tell the child that the test is designed to show what the school is able to do. Tell him the test is not a reflection on him. He cannot produce what he has not been taught. Stand back and let accountability happen.

When you go to the next IEP meeting for him, use the information gained from this test to get appropriate daily reading instruction written into his IEP so that he will be taught to read.

Your student is lucky to have a teacher who is concerned about how he feels.


[1] In some situations, school districts may test students with significant cognitive disabilities using tests at the student's instructional level rather than at their grade level without this having an impact on accountability. Read the notice of proposed rule making and the policy letter from the Secretary of Education Rod Paige

[2] The Statement of Purpose is the most important section in No Child Left Behind because it describes the overall purpose of the law: "that all children will have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to receive a high-quality education and reach, at a minimum, proficiency on challenging State academic achievement standards and state academic assessments." (20 U. S. C. § 6301)

Additional Resources

If you look at these pages, you will probably find publications and caselaw that apply to the high-stakes testing issues in your school district.

High-Stakes Testing

As states implement high-stakes tests, some have developed blanket policies that prohibit or severely limit accommodations and modifications -- despite federal law and regulations that prohibit this policy. Advocates for children with disabilities have filed lawsuits about these issues.

For a good overview of the issues, read OSEP Memorandum: Questions & Answers About IDEA, Students with Disabilities and State and District-wide Assessments

Why Children with Disabilities Should Take High Stakes Tests: One Parent's View. Parent of child with Down Syndrome describes her child's case. Over the objections of school staff, her child took tests and passed with average or above average scores. More about High-Stakes Testing


We receive dozens of emails a week about retention, social promotion and high-stakes testing. Despite clear evidence that retention does not work - and that it damages children - many school districts continue to use this outmoded policy.

If you are dealing with a retention problem, you must educate yourself before you can advocate for the child. We gathered resource information you can use to fight these damaging policies. Please download and read these articles about retention.

Section 504, Accommodations & Discrimination

Section 504 prohibits state departments of education and local school districts from developing policies that would limit disabled children from participating in assessments or deny benefits from participating in assessments (i.e., promotion, graduation). Articles about Section 504 & discrimination.

The National Center on Educational Outcomes site has a page about Accommodations for Students with Disabilities that includes general information about accommodations, frequently asked questions, and links to state accommodations policies.

More Articles by Sue Whitney

Getting Help for Children with Reading Problems

Teaching a Child to Read: Special Ed or Reading First?

Research-Based Reading Instruction

A Parent's Guide to No Child Left Behind

10 Strategies to Fight Mandatory Retention & Other Damaging Policies

Exit Exams Can Be Optional - If You Plan Ahead

To Top

Meet Sue Whitney

Sue Whitney of Manchester, New Hampshire, works with families as a special education advocate and is the research editor for Wrightslaw.

Doing Your Homework, Suzanne Whitney gives savvy advice about reading, research based instruction, and creative strategies for using education standards to advocate for children and to improve public schools.

Her articles have been reprinted by,,, The Beacon: Journal of Special Education Law and Practice, the Schafer Autism Report, and have been used in CLE presentations to attorneys.

Sue is the co-author of Wrightslaw: No Child Left Behind (ISBN: 978-1-892320-12-4) that was published by Harbor House Law Press, Inc.

She also served on New Hampshire's Special Education State Advisory Committee on the Education of Students/Children with Disabilities (SAC).

Sue Whitney's bio.

Copyright © 2002-2022 by Suzanne Whitney.

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