Let me preface this article by saying that I am in no way an authority on testing children with visual impairments. I am, however, a teacher who learns through trial and error about what makes a child successful in standardized testing situations.
Without a doubt, the single most important factor in any student’s success with standardized testing is experience.
The more opportunity a child is given to learn to manage the stress involved in a test-taking situation, the more comfortable they will become. Subsequently, when the child’s stress is reduced and their confidence strengthened, there will be an improvement in their performance on the standardized test.
When I first started teaching school-aged children with visual impairments, our students were in the third grade and were taking a standardized test for the first time. In our state, the state-mandated tests are given in the first, third, fifth, and eighth grades. The test that our state utilized at the time was the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. For our students that meant a three-volume test, approximately 18 hours of test-taking, and lots of anxiety over the unknown.
As with anything that is perceived as difficult, my students approached this task differently. Some of the children spent too much time analyzing what should have been simple questions, while others rushed through the testing and guessed at the answers. The test results were not representative of the students’ performance in class and did not reflect their potential. But it was a worthy experience, because they completed the test!
After the test, we talked about the methods they employed in taking that test and began refining our test-taking skills. We talked about strategies (reading the question once, reading the answers, eliminating obviously impossible choices, re-reading the questions) and methods for solving the problems. In talking with them, I found that my students needed more experiences in reading graphs, charts, and diagrams.
We discussed how the test is scored and whether it is better to guess the answer or leave the unknowns blank. This is an important bit of information since each test is scored differently. We talked about what I observed as they were taking the test and how the strategies they used would impact their scores. For example, “If you didn’t use any scratch paper during the computation section, how did you solve the problems?”
In the end, the children were glad that they had taken the test like the other students in their classes and were not as intimidated by the thought of taking another standardized test in the future. Since then we have taken several tests and the children have done better than they did before. Our students who participate in the regular education program achieve scores at or above grade level when compared with their sighted peers.
As their teacher, I too have sharpened my test-administration skills with each test taken. I have learned that students should have a choice in how they record their answers. Since answer sheets are not provided with the Brailled version of the Iowa, we have experimented with a number of ways for them to provide their answers. The non-standard administration of this test allows for students to record their answer in Braille or answer orally and have their answer marked on the print sheet by the test administrator. I found that if each student is empowered to make that decision, they will be more at ease and will approach the test with greater confidence.
I have also learned that our students need frequent opportunities to experience standardized testing situations just as sighted children do. They need to take the same tests as their sighted peers with necessary modifications and materials in place. They need to be equipped with knowledge about the test and strong test-taking strategies. They also need to get the same preparation or pre-testing (with appropriately modified or adapted materials) that their sighted classmates receive.
I urge educators and administrators to give our visually impaired students every opportunity to take standardized tests so that they may develop their skills. By doing so, our visually impaired students will be able to pass high school exit exams and compete for scholarships. Because of our efforts in our school district, our visually impaired students are competent test takers today. They expect to do well when they take a standardized test and are prepared to do so. A little effort goes a long way!