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Increasing Test Scores on State Benchmark Exams: Tips for Students with Special Needs

written by: Deb Killion • edited by: Carly Stockwell • updated: 11/11/2013

The last thing a Special Education teacher should do is expect students with special needs to perform the same as a typical student in all areas. Instead, learn effective techniques to help these students improve confidence, self-esteem and test-taking skills.

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    shutterstock 108977573 In order to help students with special needs, it is important to understand that differences do exist between them and the general population and learn to accommodate these differences as much as possible. While intentions are often good, the worst thing educators can do is to pretend the differences don't exist, that students with special needs should be able to perform at the same level as their average peers, and excel at the same rate.

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    No Child Left Behind Leaves Some Behind

    The national "No Child Left Behind" method was most challenged by the fact that it is impossible to expect everyone to learn the same material, in the same way, and at the same rate. So the first thing to ensure students with special needs make improvements, is to accept that they will never surpass or equal most students in the regular population. What we can hope for is true "progress over time."

    Progress Over Time

    The idea of "progress over time" is becoming more accepted as the means to check progress of students in the special ed population, because it combines the requirements with standards which are more fair. If a student is compared to himself, rather than the general population, this is seen as a much more honest measurement and more fair to the student with the disabilities. For Example, if we see progress in Math over time, then we know that the methods and means we are using are working.If only the norm-referenced standard is used, and students are compared to their non-disabled peer group, we are then comparing apples to oranges and judging them with the same standard, which is grossly unfair.

    The Label Matters

    Students in Special Education are not a homogenous group, even among themselves. The learning disabled student may be close to the ability of a regular student, and even surpass them on some levels, but they are still learning disabled. This means they will struggle in the area of their specific disability. However, this does not mean they cannot achieve at a very high level in an area in which they do not have a disability. A student who is SLD in math, for example, may score terribly on the math section, while hitting the upper quadrants in Language Arts.

    When you see a student with this sort of ability, focus on the strengths and encourage them to do their best in all areas. A student who is EMR will likely do a state-mandated portfolio, in lieu of the tests. But occasionally, this type of student may test with the other students, or have it read to them. For these students, consider the test a diagnostic evaluation of what they are able to do, instead of a reminder of what they cannot do.

    Students with a label of SED (seriously emotionally-disturbed) or behavior disordered, or OHI (other health impaired), are typically bright students and can often compete more with the general population in norm-referenced exams. Emphasizing the importance of the test in the lives of these students and a reminder that they can achieve if they try, may be all that is needed to increase their scores and give them confidence.

    While we can never group all Special Ed students into one neat category, they do have special needs which need to be addressed when preparing for state benchmarks and exams. Play on the strengths, focus on achieving progress over time with each student, and keep records of their progress. In a sense, these students are no different than any others. Every child is different and unique, in their own way, and worth our time to guide them in the right direction.

    Jerry Webster, About.Com Guide (March 2013) stated that he worked in public ed with special education students, and discusses how extra staff had to be used to work with lower-scoring students to try to get their scores up. There is a lot of pressure for schools to perform at a higher level each year, and states are required to meet an annual yearly performance gain, (AYP) or face loss of accreditation.

    Students in special ed participate in different states according to the regulations governing that state. But, in general most are required to either test with accommodations, or do an alternative portfolio assessment.In recent years, there has also been a trend toward including the results of the special education population in the larger group of test scores. This puts more pressure on districts and teachers to maintain growth in test scores yearly or risk losing some control over what they do.

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    Ideas to Foster

    Here are some ideas to help with this for both special and regular education professionals.

    • Look at every individual education plan for students, and look at their diagnostic data from the previous testing evaluation procedure.
    • Identify specific weak areas, and formulate a plan to address these weaknesses.
    • Determine appropriate class work for individual students.
    • Examine progress over time and see how the student has improved over the previous year.
    • Now look at sample test items that are released for practice, and give these students these specific skills to work on.

    In the next article, we will discuss how to improve confidence in test-takers and increase scores with motivation and self-talk.


Test Scores for Students with Special Needs

Through years spent as a Special Education teacher in the public school system, I developed a number of techniques which proved effective over the years in raising student scores. Learn some of the hurdles facing students with special needs and how to overcome them.
  1. Increasing Test Scores on State Benchmark Exams: Tips for Students with Special Needs
  2. The Mental Mind Set of Students with Special Needs
  3. Helping Students With Special Needs to Prepare for Various Test Formats
  4. Using Accommodations to Full Advantage