How Statewide School Testing Discriminates Against Special Needs Students


A friend of mine recently found out that, unbeknownst to her, her special needs son was being tested using state standards. Activities that were not listed on his IEP (and that were not at all appropriate for his learning level) had been added to his daily lessons in order to fulfill mandatory testing requirements. And of course as a nonverbal child, he wasn’t able to tell her that his daily routine had changed.

When she asked about having her son opt out of these useless activities, she was told that this is not an option, and handed a form letter from the state (not addressed to her and redacted to maintain the privacy of the original recipient) which explained why standardized testing is a requirement (and a right!) for all special needs students.

Is it always appropriate to test students, even those with severe disabilities? And can standardized tests be considered discriminatory, even when alternative testing options are offered to special needs students?

This is How Testing is Supposed to Work

In Massachusetts we have Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) testing. The idea behind this is fairly simple and not at all unique to Massachusetts:

The state assessments provide important feedback to families, teachers, administrators, and state policymakers as to where schools are succeeding and where schools and districts need to enhance their efforts.

I get that. How can we tell if we are doing right by our students if we don’t have some sort of assessment system in place? Of course I’m not alone in feeling that standardized testing is an inefficient and even detrimental way to assess students, but when we look at how this policy is applied to students with disabilities, it’s downright discriminatory.

The problem stems from the concept that all students have the right to participate in assessment testing. Administrators fear that school districts may intentionally leave special needs students out of testing in order to inflate their overall average score.

Because all students should be able to participate, Massachusetts has developed the “MCAS-Alt,” an alternate way to assess students who are unable to sit for a standard fill-in-the-bubble type test.

Again, the idea is pretty straightforward:

The MCAS-Alt provides an alternative method of assessment to the standard on-demand test and involves the collection of student work and data on a student’s performance collected during routine classroom instruction.

The idea here is that the student isn’t actually involved in any testing at all… it’s the teacher who must collect “work samples, instructional data, videotapes, and other supporting information” that grouped together form a student’s “portfolio” which is then sent to the state for filing and assessment. But that is definitely not always how this test is administered.

This is How Testing Really Works

In the real world, the MCAS (and yes even the MCAS-Alt) requires teachers to present evidence of adherence to certain standards. For example, a student in the 8th grade should recognize fractions. That is the standard and all 8th grade students must be tested to see if they meet this standard. If, say, a 14 year old student who is completely blind, non verbal and has severe autism is participating in the MCAS-Alt test, how do we show his understanding of fractions?

I am not being hypothetical here. I am referring to a real boy who in real life has no concept of fractions nor will he ever need to use fractions in his daily life, neither now nor in the future. His IEP and school time is supposed to focus on functional skills, like toilet training, tolerating sensory input like nail filing, moving from one room to another independently, etc.

But what is he actually doing in class? Math lessons that involve “placing fruit halves in the teacher’s hands to demonstrate that objects can be divided into equal parts” (a direct quote from his MCAS-Alt portfolio).

This is not routine classroom instruction for this student. This is not listed as a goal on his IEP. Learning about fractions (and numbers and shapes and a plethora of other “math” skills evidently assessed in his most recent portfolio) are taking up his precious valuable and limited classroom time so that his teacher can collect data for his portfolio.

This is Why it Hurts

Our special needs children are being taught to the test. Even worse, they are being taken advantage of by a system that is supposed to have their best interests at heart.

Do you know what number terrifies every single parent of a disabled child? Twenty-Two. What happens at 22? Our kids lose out on what we have been told are “guaranteed” services and enter the world of “adult services.”

Under the Department of Education we are assured access to vision services, physical therapy, behavior therapy, etc etc. When they turn 22? Maybe, maybe not. Honestly, the idea of the entire system is that by the time they turn 22 they should have mastered whatever skills they will need to thrive… or should I say simply survive?… in the world of adult services.

I’m talking about kids who are not destined to live independently or hold jobs. These are kids who are going to be living in group homes, who will have 24 hour care their entire lives and who will benefit immensely if they are able to communicate basic needs or use a toilet with assistance.


*deep breath*


Do you see the problem here?

And This is How it’s Discriminatory

OK, if you’re still with me you can see why I find this issue to be critical to kids with severe disabilities. But if ALL students must participate in standardized testing, how is this policy discriminatory?

Because not all kids participate. Families of typical students have found numerous ways to avoid MCAS testing.

The test is scheduled for next Thursday? Oh, little Jenny has a cold and will stay home. They are doing a make up test the following month? Pretty sure she’ll be sick then too. Oh well!

Parents have even had their children attend the test, but not mark any answers or have them mark “a” to every question. They fail the test, but who cares? It’s a way to abstain from testing.

But for the MCAS-Alt, how do we opt out? The state DOE has an answer to that question:

We have consistently informed schools that they must submit a portfolio for any student designated for the Alt, and that parents may not intercede by prohibiting a school from doing so. We have told inquiring parents that there is no allowance for opting out of the MCAS‐Alt, and that statewide assessment is an integral aspect of a public education.

And since the Alt test is technically performed by the teacher and not the student, and performed over a long period of time (usually for months), there is no way to just keep your child home on test day.

If the portfolio were actually just a collection of work the student would be performing in class anyway, then there wouldn’t be a problem. But schools routinely add additional work to a student’s day (pushing aside much needed lessons) in order to meet the standards and strands required for the MCAS-Alt.

So we have a situation where one group of students has the option to opt out of testing and one group does not. And the group that does not have that option often does not have a voice themselves to complain.

When one group is treated differently than another isn’t this usually considered discrimination?

How Statewide School Testing Discriminates Against Special Needs Students

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