October 14, 2009, was a milestone day. My daughter, Kyra Sweeney, a tenth grader, took the PSAT. Over the past year preparation for the test required a great deal of attention. Again and again I asked myself the question heard so often from the parents of blind children, "Why does it have to be so hard?" I hope that our story will help others navigate the process.
When Kyra was about to start ninth grade we learned that freshmen could register to take the PSAT in October. However, when my husband called the College Board he was told it was too late to apply for accommodations for the 2008 PSAT. That first call taught us two things: start the process very early, and don't count on the school to do it for you.
Early in 2009 I went on the College Board Website and read everything I could about the test and accommodations. I searched through the information for students, parents, and professionals. Particularly useful were the instructions for completing the Student Eligibility Form and the Sample Student Eligibility Form. The page entitled "Other Accommodations" included a useful section called "Examples of Accommodations Available on College Board Tests." I found it was helpful to take my time and read everything that might possibly be relevant. I bookmarked and printed all of the items that I might need later.
Calls to the College Board were very frustrating. For example, finding no mention of a BrailleNote on the Website, I asked if Kyra would be allowed to use one to record her answers. The person on the phone had no idea what a BrailleNote was. When I couldn't get clear information from the College Board, I did what any savvy parent would do. I called Carol Castellano, president of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children. Carol confirmed that we should request a Braille device and advised us to request a reader as well. Kyra could use the reader selectively. For example, a question might ask about the meaning of a word on "Line 22," meaning Line 22 in the print version. Kyra could ask the reader to read Line 22 from the print page.
In March of 2009 I moved forward on getting the Student Eligibility Form submitted. Part of the form had to be filled out by the parent and part by the school, and the school had to submit the form. I made an appointment with the school counselor. Before the appointment I filled out the entire sample form, including the sections on extended time, visual assistance, auditory assistance, and other assistance. Under "Other Assistance" I wrote in "Braille device for written answers" and "record answers in test booklet." I took the sample form, along with material printed from the College Board Website, to the appointment. The counselor and I sat together as I filled out the parent section and she filled out the school section. If I hadn't been there when she filled it out, I don't know what would have gone on that form.
To my relief we received the letter with the approved accommodations a few weeks later. Our request was approved, with one exception. Although we requested 150 percent extended time, the letter approved only 100 percent extended time. We decided to accept 100 percent. Once a student gets to the actual SAT, 100 percent is a very long time. It's important to note that the accommodations letter applies to all College Board tests, as long as the student attends the same school and the school verifies that he/she continues to be eligible. You don't have to go through this process every year!
The letter approved a reader, "to be chosen by the school." I provided input on the choice. I didn't specify individuals, but said the reader must be a capable person who could understand the directions and would take time to prepare. The school selected the teacher of the visually impaired to administer the test and serve as a reader.
Practice tests are available in Braille, but we could not receive one until Kyra's application for accommodations was complete. Once we had the accommodations letter I requested a Braille practice test from the College Board. After ten days without a response I put in a call. I was told that the College Board thought I was requesting the 2009 practice test, which wasn't yet available. I said I would take any Braille practice test they had, and finally I received one at home.
However, the answer key wasn't provided with the test. Looking carefully, I realized that the Braille practice test was the same as the practice test included in the print 2008 PSAT/NMSQT Student Guide. An answer key appears on the last page. I ordered a couple more past PSAT's from the College Board Website. (They aren't very expensive.) They come in print, but I thought it would be useful to read additional sample questions to Kyra. The tests came without answer keys, so again I had to call the College Board. They sent me the answer keys right away by email, but only after I called and asked.
When the new school year started, I called the College Board and requested the 2009 Braille practice test. They insisted on sending it to the school, but it arrived within a week. I also picked up a copy of the 2009 PSAT/NMSQT Student Guide, which the school provides to all students who register for the test. Kyra joked about taking a practice test for the practice test, but I strongly encourage it. She knew a lot about what to expect when she took the actual test. For instance, she determined that she was better off not using a reader. She found that the print line numbers were marked in the Braille test, and it was helpful for her to read beyond the specific line referred to in the question. Other students might have a different preference. The practice test helps the student figure this out.
This August, when we received the information about signing up for the PSAT during school registration, we were ready. Kyra signed up for the test on school registration day along with everyone else. Remember, getting an accommodation letter isn't the same as registering for the test. You need to do both.
After all of this we still had a near disaster. I was out of town when I received an email from the TVI on my Blackberry. The school had to send in a PSAT order roster to order the non-standard test format. According to the order roster, a Braille test could only be administered on Wednesday, and not on the normal Saturday test date. Kyra could choose to take the test on Saturday, but it would be given entirely with a reader. The school needed a decision. The deadline for sending in the order roster was the next day!
I responded right away that Kyra would take the PSAT on Wednesday. No one has ever explained why Wednesday is the only day the Braille test can be given. It's unfair and discriminatory to make blind students miss classes to take the test. Until the policy is changed, parents should discuss this issue with the school well in advance to avoid a last-minute glitch.
Naturally I wasn't there on the test day, but it seemed to go smoothly. When Kyra finished the test, the TVI filled in answer sheet bubbles and attached her answers printed from the BrailleNote. I suggested that Kyra keep the document, just in case something gets lost. Maybe that's over-the-top worrying, but what's the harm?
Sometimes I forget that there's still one more step. We don't have the results. For now, the success is that Kyra took the test!