Beyond the Scantron: Special Education Expert Sheryl Lazarus on How Fair, High-Quality Tests Have Led to Improved Instruction for Students With Disabilities and English Learners

This article is part of a series titled "Beyond the Scantron: Tests and Equity in Today’s Schools," which is a collaboration with the George W. Bush Institute. The series aims to explore the importance of high-quality exams and their impact on equitable education for all students. You can read all the articles in this series here, as well as our previous series on accountability.

Sheryl Lazarus is the director of the National Center for Educational Outcomes at the University of Minnesota. Her research focuses on special education policies for students with disabilities, English language learners, and other diverse populations.

During our conversation, Lazarus discussed the need for appropriate accommodations in standardized testing for students with disabilities and English learners. She emphasizes that quality assessments have demonstrated the academic potential of these student populations and have also helped improve their instruction.

When asked about the essential qualities of a high-quality summative assessment, Lazarus highlights the importance of alignment with the Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing. These standards, developed by reputable organizations such as the American Educational Research Association, the American Psychological Association, and the National Council on Measurement in Education, provide guidelines for a fair assessment.

Lazarus believes that a high-quality summative assessment should be inclusive and accessible to all students, so they can effectively demonstrate their knowledge and abilities. She notes that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires the participation of students with disabilities in state and district assessments, with or without accommodations. However, alternate assessments should be available for those who cannot participate in the general assessment.

To ensure fairness for English language learners and students with disabilities, Lazarus suggests providing accommodations such as a pop-up glossary for English learners or extra time for completing the test. These accommodations aim to enable meaningful access to the assessment for students with disabilities.

Summative tests are important for these student populations because they measure school and district performance. Lazarus explains that these tests play a crucial role in evaluating how well the education system serves students with disabilities and English learners. The data from these assessments highlight disparities and can lead to improvements in their instructional opportunities.

Neglecting the needs of these student populations puts their progress at risk. Lazarus warns that by not addressing their specific requirements, we jeopardize the gains we have made in improving outcomes for students with disabilities and English learners. Including them in summative tests used for accountability enables us to assess the system’s effectiveness and identify areas for improvement. It is essential not to lower expectations for these students after the progress we have achieved.

Lazarus expresses excitement about the shift towards technology-based assessments, as they have made assessments more accessible to students with disabilities. For example, adjusting font sizes on the testing platform can benefit many students. However, she also raises concerns about ensuring equitable access to innovative test items for students with disabilities and English learners. Developers must consider how visually impaired or hearing-impaired students can access these items effectively.

The same applies to distance education and administering assessments remotely. Lazarus acknowledges the challenges faced by students with disabilities in accessing necessary accommodations in these scenarios, especially when human assistance is required.

This article was contributed by Anne Wicks, the Ann Kimball Johnson Director of the George W. Bush Institute’s Education Reform Initiative, and William McKenzie, senior editorial advisor at the George W. Bush Institute.

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  • rowandavid

    I am a 32-year-old educational blogger and student. I love to share my knowledge and experiences with others through writing. I believe that knowledge is power, and I am passionate about helping others learn and grow.