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Changes are coming to school standardized tests, and advocates are warning parents of children with disabilities to pay close attention.

Adam Neal, a disability advocate from Calvert County, said the aim of the new standards and related assessments, created by the Partnership for Assessment of Career and College Readiness, or PARCC, is to make sure students are ready for college, meaning they would not need to take a remedial course in English or math their first year. Nearly half of students going into college in Maryland need to take a non-credit-bearing remedial course based on incoming college assessments.

Neal, who spoke at a dyslexia support group Monday night, said parent meetings with educators are important, and parents need to continue to be aware of how their child is being educated.

“Unfortunately, that’s not going to change. We still are going to have to advocate for our children,” Neal said.

When it comes to a child with a disability, that advocacy can involve a lot of time or money, he said. Neal recommended taking someone else familiar with the disability education process to formal IEP, or individualized education program, meetings with school officials.

He said the PARCC tests, which will take the place of the Maryland School Assessments and the High School Assessments, will still offer two categories of options for students who need them: accessibility features and accommodations.

Accessibility features are built into the new tests and are available to any student, with or without a disability, who may need them, according to information provided by PARCC. An adult, whether a parent or educator, must identify which accessibility features are activated for an individual student before the tests are given.

Accessibility features include items like adjustments to contrast of a computer screen, testing in small groups and allowing frequent, supervised breaks during the hours-long tests.

Accommodations are specific adjustments to the testing that provide equitable access and are identified in a student’s official IEP or 504 plan. Accommodations are intended to reduce or eliminate the effects of a student’s disability. However, they do not reduce the learning expectations.

Accommodations could include using Braille, using a calculator on certain parts of a math test, using a scribe or speech-to-text program or receiving extended time to take the tests.

Neal said the questions on the new reading and language arts tests involve reading long passages of text, even in elementary school, and following up with multiple questions related to the text.

Parents at Monday’s meeting were concerned that text-to-speech software would no longer be available.

According to the PARCC accommodations manual, the text-to-speech would still be available to “a very small number of students with disabilities.” The guidelines say the text-to-speech accommodation would be available to those who have a disability that severely limits or prevents him/her from accessing printed text (for example, a student who is unable to decode printed text or read fluently).

Neal said it is important that parents make it clear their children need to be able to practice using the accessibility or accommodation features both at school and home before the tests are given.

He said the “read to” technology or use of a scribe to register a child’s answers on the tests are still permitted for those who qualify for it as a need, based on his conversations with Lillian Lowery, Maryland schools’ superintendent. However, Neal said, he thinks the number of students identified as needing that type of accommodation will be reduced.

“I know a lot of parents are worried about losing their accommodations,” Neal said.

One parent at the meeting said she was told an accommodation would no longer be offered to her daughter because “it wasn’t allowed by PARCC.” After checking into the situation, she said, the specific accommodation had not been disallowed completely, but she will have to wait until her next scheduled IEP meeting to try to have it reinstated.

Neal said it is more important now than ever to stay abreast of what is available and what accessibility or accommodation features are approved for a child. He recommended all parents of children with disabilities review the accessibility and accommodations manual, which is available online at the PARCC website.

The tests will now be given on computers to nearly all students. Neal urged parents to make sure their children’s computer skills, including keyboarding, are practiced at home.

Lisa Blottenberger of Leonardtown facilitates the Dyslexia Support Network of Southern Maryland, which meets the third Monday of every month at the Patuxent Presbyterian Church in California.

She said a representative from St. Mary’s public schools was invited to Monday’s meeting. She said school administrators said they would address the issue of disabilities and the new assessments next spring.

The education reform movement underway includes putting in place new curriculum across all grade levels, switching to the new statewide assessments and using those test results as part of teacher and principal evaluations.

The new assessments, at least as advertised, will be more useful, rigorous and better gauge students’ level of understanding, Superintendent Michael Martirano said in a previous interview.

As planned now, one class in each school will take the new tests next spring while the remaining students take the outdated Maryland School Assessments. It is expected that all students in grades three through eight and high school will take the PARCC assessments by the 2014-2015 school year.

jyeatman@somdnews.com

FAQ about new testing

Will students with disabilities have accommodations available on the new PARCC tests? Yes, if a need is determined in a student’s IEP or 504 plan meeting.

Will paper and pencil assessments still be given? Yes, but only for those students that require them due to an identified need. All others will take the tests on computers.

Where are specific accommodations and accessibility features listed? The PARCC Accessibility Features and Accommodations Manual is a 60-page policy document that will support educators in the selection, administration and evaluation of accommodations for the assessment of students with disabilities and English learners on the PARCC assessments. It is available on the PARCC website. To access the PARCC accommodations manual and other information, including frequently asked questions, visit www.parcconline.org/parcc-accessibility-features-and-accommodations-manual.

Will the high school assessments be used for admission into two- and four-year institutions of higher education? The assessments are not intended to be used by colleges and universities in decisions about college admission, but are intended to give students a determination that indicates they are academically prepared to enroll and can be exempt from taking a placement test at the college or university they attend.