The PARCC, who publish the eponymous test used to measure educational progress toward college and career readiness in New Mexico, has released version 4 of its Accessibility Features and Accommodations Manual. Accommodations for PARCC are specifically targeted at English language learning students and those with 504 or IDEA disabilities. Gifted students who are not ELLs or twice exceptional are not part of that group.
I have met many educators who have written testing accommodations into individual plans for gifted students. I have myself. For those smart students who have the slow, deliberative processing style of a creative person, it can be tempting to extend testing time. Students who express anxiety around testing or who are affected by high levels of perfectionism may present a need for a customized testing experience as well.
Fortunately, the PARCC provides two sets of features that may be applied to any student: “administrative considerations,” and “accessibility features.” Administrative considerations include small group settings, special timing allowances, or frequent breaks. The PARCC’s accessibility features include spell checking, highlighting, selective text-to-speech, glossaries, and noise buffers. But which features should you consider for your gifted students? The answer is dependent on the purpose of and way we interpret standardized tests.
The Purpose of Standardized Tests
Ask any random group people why we give standardized tests, and you’re likely to get as many answers as you have conversations. Policy makers and school administrators use tests to evaluate the efficacy of programs and teachers. Colleges and special programs employ them to determine the likely success of candidates and select participants. Teachers may see tests as diagnostic tools for best planning educational opportunities. In the era of Value Added Modeling, tests become opportunities for greater pay and accolades on one hand and liabilities weighing against their evaluations on the other. Parents might view tests as a measure of whether their students are doing well in school or which school to select. Students may see tests as measures of their success or failure or simply trials to get past, depending on their experience.
While some purposes of testing may have more merit than others, any meaningful use of a test requires that it be reliable and valid. Reliable tests produce consistent scores. Valid scores measure what they purport to measure. And both reliability and validity require that test administration be controlled.
If validity and reliability are dependent on standardization, why do we give some students accommodations, changing those usually controlled conditions? Because for some students, accommodations produce a significantly more valid and reliable result. In my humble opinion, this should be the test of when to allow a change to the standardized administration of a test, through accommodations, administrative considerations, or accessibility features.
Some Gifted Need Accommodations
ELL students and students with disabilities that may coexist with giftedness, such as AD/HD, learning disabilities, autism spectrum are allowed accommodations on the PARCC. Since these children may require much more processing time to show what they can do, or may have special needs related to understanding and communicating their answers, it makes sense that their testing circumstances sometimes be modified. On its face, if a student has a significantly different and better performance with accommodations, it seems more valid to use those accommodations.
While many gifted students may score better on tests that do not have time limits, for disabled and ELL students, the differences are quite large. For these students testing without accommodation would not be a measure of their knowledge and skill. Put another way, accommodations are to level the field for those who could not otherwise play, not to optimize scores.
According to the American Test Anxieties Association, as many as 20% of students have high test anxiety, with 18% troubled by moderately high test anxiety. Physical symptoms like panic, elevated negative feelings, and difficulty concentrating and organizing thoughts may occur. In addition to or as a result of these symptoms, students with high levels of test anxiety may have score significantly lower on standardized tests.
While these symptoms may sometimes rise to the level of a diagnosable condition that could result in accommodations, often that is not the case. In fact, some level of anxiety is necessary for good performance on any test. A relationship known as the Yerkes-Dodson Law shows that just as high anxiety may decrease test performance, so may low anxiety by causing students to not to give enough attention and energy to a task. The key is moderate or “facilitative” anxiety.
So what if a student has just a little too much? Three research-based strategies for decreasing test anxiety are worth trying: relaxation exercises including breathing and body awareness exercises, asking students to think about something they value and write about why they do, and simply unloading their worries by writing about them. The team may implement these strategies via administrative considerations, which allow special test timing or frequent breaks, creating time for the student to practice anxiety-reduction techniques.
Many gifted education teachers I know have given test accommodations because of students’ perfectionism. They perceive students slow down too much to complete all of a tests’ problems, and could perform better with more time.
While perfectionism may generate concern similar to test anxiety, it does not constitute the same problem. In a study of gifted students’ math test performance by Tsui and Mazzocco (2007), the presence of math anxiety or perfectionism decreased the difference between timed and untimed test performance. Another study by Stoeber and Kersting focused on the effect of perfectionism on tests of reasoning and speed: it showed either no relationship or positive relationships between perfectionism and test performance. Perfectionism, in both cases, increased performance on timed standardized tests.
Perfectionism is a problem for some gifted students, but understanding its positive implications may be the best response.
Non-Disability Learning Problems
No one gifted student is like another, due to the asynchrony in their learning profiles. It is important educators look for differences in students’ profiles that may cause problems.
Though the law allows for identification of disabilities in students who are gifted, the fact that a student is gifted may mean that learning disabilities go undiagnosed. When gifted students use their intelligence to compensate for learning or processing problems, they may maintain performance at or above grade level, though well below expectancy. Gifted education teachers should keep watch for problems with attention, distraction, communication and processing, and respond to those needs accordingly.
Look to PARCC’s administrative considerations including small group testing, and accessibility features such as spell checking, highlighting, selective text-to-speech, glossaries, and noise buffers to address characteristics of learning problems where a problem exists but no disability is diagnosed.
Put Future First
Standardized tests make a convenient record. Our students’ test scores will inevitably be interpreted by people without any richer information about them. In planning standardized testing, the IEP team ensures data recorded about our students is valid and reliable.
One study found the PARCC a valid predictor of college success, comparable to the SAT, but any test’s prediction is only as valid as its administration. Think forward – does your testing plan today help your student do what they he or she will tomorrow?Whatever accommodations, administrative considerations, or accessibility features you elect to use, your gifted students will likely take the ACT and/or SAT, which only allow accommodations in cases of well-documented disabilities. What happens if your student relies on taking tests with supports she or he cannot access in transition to college?
Everything we do in education prepares our students for something else. After identifying the best way to administer standardized tests to your gifted students, practice other tests same way. As a result, you will know if your plans work, and your students will grow confidence, knowing the success of approaching standardized tests in the best ways for them.
Consider your gifted students’ standardized testing as carefully as other parts of their individual plans. Thinking through the delivery of each gifted student’s standardized tests can ensure they are a meaningful part of public education.
- Funding Gifted in Tight Times - May 21, 2017
- Press Release from Santa Fe: Equitable ID and Services - August 20, 2016
- Call for Award Nominations - July 24, 2016
- PARCC and Gifted Education - February 23, 2016
- NMAG On Demand - November 11, 2015
- Call for Nominations for Award - August 18, 2015
- Letter from the President: Teacher Evaluations - June 16, 2015