Why some students with special needs struggled with ILEARN accommodations

Julie Bryant watched last spring as her students with low vision struggled through questions on the state’s new ILEARN assessment.

In past years, Bryant said she could read the directions and questions aloud to students who had a visual impairment. But last spring her students had to go to a dropdown menu at the top right of every question and select the speaker symbol. Bryant, who teaches for a special education co-op in southern Indiana, watched as some had trouble accessing it, or gave up trying.

“It wasn’t user-friendly,” she said. “To have to do that every time is just insane.”

Chalkbeat Indiana recently surveyed parents and educators on their experiences with ILEARN. Of the more than 50 respondents, 11 shared concerns related to special education accommodations. Some said problems with appropriate accommodations — including the clunky dropdown menus, lack of American Sign Language interpreters, and the decision to disallow calculators for grades 3-5 — were, in part, responsible for the statewide drop in test scores. (Some state lawmakers attributed the decline to the transition to ILEARN, from ISTEP.)

“Just seeing the kids trying to work through this different test and not having the tools that they are used to having – it’s frustrating,” said Courtney Spurgeon, a math intervention specialist at Avondale Meadows Academy in Indianapolis. “You have kids in tears.”

An Indiana Department of Education spokesman, Adam Baker, said this year’s test provided better accommodations than did ISTEP, thanks to its new digital format. And he defended the state’s decision to eliminate and adjust some accommodations.

ILEARN is computer-adaptive, meaning it gets harder or easier as students answer questions right or wrong. As a result, the Indiana Department of Education was able to make available more than 20 new accommodations for students, including a Spanish-language translation. Some accommodations that were previously handled by teachers, like reading questions out loud, became part of the computer program.

More than 86,000 students in Indiana were granted an accommodation for the 2019 test. Such accommodations could include anything from extra breaks to closed captioning to access to a multilingual glossary. The extra tools are used by students in special education, English language learners, and students with specific needs who have an Individual Learning Plan.

Indiana doesn’t release scores grouped by accommodations, so it’s unclear exactly how many students who received them passed ILEARN. Baker said accommodations are only tools to help students access testing materials so the state does not tie results to them.

However, passing rates for special education students were low. Just 10.7% of the more than 75,000 special education students statewide who took ILEARN passed both math and English portions in 2019. That’s compared to 53.8% of general education students passed. In 2018, 18% of special education students passed both ISTEP tests.

Concerns surface 

Among those who spoke to Chalkbeat about their experience with ILEARN was Rachael Reed, of Sullivan, Indiana. Her daughter, who is on the autism spectrum, struggled with the fact that she couldn’t skip questions. The test’s adaptive format requires an answer because the next question is selected based on whether the response is correct. Reed said her then-fifth grader spent an entire afternoon on one question because she’s a “black and white” thinker and couldn’t bring herself to put an incorrect answer.

One teacher told Chalkbeat the test formatting meant her student who was hard of hearing couldn’t see the closed captioning on videos and questions at the same time. Other teachers said they weren’t given enough time to prepare students to use a multiplication chart in lieu of a calculator. The Department of Education said that calculators would no longer be allowed a year prior, but the decision to allow a chart for students who needed the accommodation came weeks before testing started.

Some parents questioned the legality of not allowing a calculator for grades 3-5 when access to one is included in a student’s legally-binding Individualized Education Program. Baker said the multiplication chart will continue to be allowed to fulfill that IEP requirement. The questions Indiana is using historically did not call for using a calculator, he said, and allowing one would “compromise” any national comparisons of Indiana students’ performance.

“The ILEARN assessment is required to test the standards as they are stated,” Baker said. “By allowing a calculator on items that measure computation, we are no longer able to make inferences about student knowledge based on the assessment questions.”

Read-out-loud access

Concerns about test accommodations surfaced before ILEARN testing started when parents of students with dyslexia argued last legislative session that students who were given the read-out-loud option should also be able to use it for portions of the test covering reading comprehension. A bill passed subsequently requiring the department to make “every reasonable attempt” to provide the same read-out-loud accommodations for every section of the test.

Danielle Molter, of Fortville, Indiana, said last week that the test would more accurately gauge her daughter’s comprehension if she read the passage herself, then could use the reader for the questions. Her daughter has dyslexia, so when she takes other tests, especially long ones, her teachers at Mt. Vernon Community Schools, read the questions aloud to her.

“Reading the question wouldn’t give her an advantage,” Molter said.

When asked if the accommodation will be allowed on reading comprehension sections next year, Baker said the State Board of Education had made “no decisions” at this time.

Bryant – whose students struggled to select the read-aloud option – works with children in four counties, Dubois, Spencer, Perry, and Pike, through Exceptional Children’s Co-op. One low-vision fourth grader took half a day longer to finish his test than a fourth grader who was blind and using a printed braille version. Typically it would be the other way around, Bryant said, since braille takes students longer to read. She said it would be easier if the test automatically read all the permitted sections, an idea also mentioned by others who spoke to Chalkbeat.

Baker didn’t say whether the department is considering such a change, but said the menu gives students who are granted the accommodation the option of whether they need it for each question.

Sign language interpretation

The new test also didn’t allow sign language interpretations by teachers for students who are deaf or hard of hearing. In years past, teachers received a script, which wasn’t possible for the adaptive test. The ILEARN programming offered American Sign Language for video and audio pieces, but not for directions or questions.

Bobbi Hall, a Duneland Schools teacher in northern Indiana, said that students who are deaf are typically about two years behind their peers in reading comprehension because they’ve never heard the sounds the letters make. It can be more difficult for them to understand the meaning of more abstract words, like “what” or “which,” when reading, but they would understand a sign language interpretation of the question, Hall said.

“I do have a problem when… we allow (students) to have audio to listen to questions being read aloud but my deaf and hard of hearing students couldn’t [have sign language interpretation]” Hall said. “That’s a discrepancy.”

The state is working to allow students an interpreter next year, Baker said, by creating a new online test that is not adaptive and would allow for a script. And he said the state’s education department is continuing to meet regularly with an accommodations advisory group to discuss student needs.

Kim Dodson, executive director of The Arc of Indiana, which advocates for people with disabilities, said accommodations will likely be discussed again this legislative session.

“There’s so much pressure put on the student to do well,” Dodson said, “but then you take away their resources … I don’t know why anybody thinks that’s a good idea.”