Helping Your Autistic Child Prepare for Standardized Testing

Autistic child preparing for standardized testing

By this time of year most households have or are about to start preparations for state standardized testing. I get a lot of questions about the tests that states administer and if Autistic students have to take them. The answer isn’t a clear cut yes or no. It really depends on your child’s deficits and their IEP guidelines. What I can do is tell you about the tests and what you can do to help prepare your child for them.

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Origins of Standardized Testing

You may ask how long standardized tests have been along- the answer may surprise you. While the idea of standardized tests started in the mid 1800’s, the first set of actual standardized tests for students under college level happened in 1917 and 1918. Back then 6,500 children in Oakland, California were given the Stanford-Binet, as well as a new test written by Arthur Otis (who would eventually be credited with the invention of the multiple-choice format). The use of these tests “skyrocketed after 2002's No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) mandated annual testing in all 50 states.”

After this happened US students slipped from being ranked 18th in the world in math in 2000 to 27th in 2012, with a “similar decline in science and no change in reading. Failures in the education system have been blamed on rising poverty levels, teacher quality, tenure policies, and, increasingly, on the pervasive use of standardized tests.”

While each state’s implementation and use of standardized tests has its critics, it is reported that “most educational experts agree that testing is a measure of how well students comprehend and apply knowledge. They also agree that high standards are a worthy goal.” Proponents argue for the tests, saying that standardized tests are a fair and objective measure of student ability. They also say that they ensure teachers and schools are accountable to taxpayers.

Opponents say, “the tests are neither fair nor objective, that their use promotes a narrow curriculum and drill-like ‘teaching to the test,’ and that excessive testing undermines America's ability to produce innovators and critical thinkers.” While the rumors in Indiana are that our standardized tests won’t be around for long, other states hold theirs to a high account. So, until someone comes up with a more effective measure of accountability, it looks as though standardized tests are here to stay. For a list of the standardized tests by state follow this link.

Why Testing Autistic Students is Different

Now, for students with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) testing is different than for neurotypical students. Per Indiana University, “standardized assessments [for students with Autism] present a host of difficulties. When testing children with ASD, it may be difficult or impossible to adhere to the administration guidelines and still elicit the student’s best performance. Tests that are highly dependent on language comprehension, for example, may be biased against students with ASD. Specifically, tests that require lengthy verbal directions and verbal responses are almost always inappropriate. Even on the performance subtests, receptive language skills are required to understand the directions. The communication deficit faced by all students with ASD puts them at a disadvantage on tests dependent on receptive and expressive language use.”

There are other characteristics that IU points out about how Autism spectrum disorders affect the standardized testing situation. “Students with ASD, regardless of level of functioning, possess deficits in social skills. Standardized tests require some level of social interaction. It may be difficult to perform well on an individually administered assessment without reciprocal social interaction skills. Atypical interests, repetitive behaviors, stereotypic behaviors, disruptive behaviors, and inattention may further complicate the testing situation.”

What can I do to help my special needs child prepare for testing?

It is important to be aware first and foremost that your child may take one or more standardized tests during the school year. Your child's teacher may spend class time on test preparation throughout the year as well. As a parent, there are several ways that you can support your child before it's time to be tested.

Per an article adapted from scholastic articles and tips from me, these are the best ways to help your child.

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Before the Test:

-Help your child in areas that are difficult for her/him- “If your child has struggled with a particular area or subject in the past, you may be able to help her overcome some of that difficulty by providing some extra practice. Many workbooks target test preparation by offering practice exercises and questions like the ones students see on the test. Focus your practice on your child's weaknesses rather than her strengths.”

-Give your child a chance to practice- “If your child has trouble taking tests, try practicing test questions and studying new words.”

-If you have concerns about the test or testing situation, talk with your child's teacher- “Discuss your concerns with the teacher and/or school administrator. If you're not satisfied with the outcome, however, you can reach out to some other organizations that monitor testing, including your local PTA, The National Center for Fair & Open Testing or the ERIC Clearinghouse on Assessment and Evaluation.”

-Check and recheck your child’s IEP Accommodations- Print out a copy of your child’s IEP to take with you to the testing facility, if you must transport your child yourself. If they are in a brick and mortar school, make sure to talk to the teacher about accommodations prior to testing to make sure all are met. An accommodation is an adjustment to an activity or setting that removes a barrier presented by a disability, so students may have equal access to the same opportunities available to students without a disability. When accommodations are necessary, they are listed in a student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP)or 504 plans.

Day of Testing:

-Make sure your child gets a good night's sleep and eats a healthy breakfast

-Make sure your child is prepared- “Some schools may supply the tools your child needs for the test, such as pencils, an eraser, paper, and a calculator. Others may require the students to bring those materials themselves. Check with your child's teacher to see if you need to provide your child with any of these materials.”

-Remain positive with your child- Use supporting words prior to the testing to bring down their anxiety level. Remind them just to do their best and that is all that matters.

-When you arrive at school that day make sure to make it a point to talk to the teacher administering the test. Make sure all the accommodations are being met and make sure that the teacher understands your child’s specific deficits. i.e. If they wander, they will need to know this, so they don’t let them leave the testing area.

Common IEP Testing Accommodations:
-Extended testing time
-Individual testing with a one on one or a small group setting
-Headphones or noise dampening headphones allowed
-Scribe (person to write/type for the child)
-Questions read to child
-Calculator use on non-calculator parts of Math
-Small breaks
-Repeat test directions as needed.
-Ask the student to repeat directions in his or her own words.
-Have the student highlight key words in the directions and/or questions.

It’s important to mention that it is ”common practice that any accommodation or modification in testing be consistently followed in the classroom on a daily basis. For example, if a seventh-grade student’s IEP dictates that he/she be tested on a second-grade level in reading, then the student must be instructed and tested on the second-grade level in his/her classroom,” as is the situation with my child.

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