The Alabama State Department of Education must rewrite the policy outlining who qualifies for testing accommodations after the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) found the current policy violates rights of students with disabilities.
That mandate comes as a result of an official complaint filed by Amy Rauworth on behalf of her daughter, Grace*, a fifth grader in Hoover City Schools, who was denied accommodations on the ACT Aspire last spring after the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) said her reading level was higher than the benchmark determining who qualified for the testing accommodation.
The ALSDE enacted that policy, written in November 2015, for the first time last spring. The policy stated that only students whose reading levels were two or more grade levels below their current grade level would be allowed to have questions read aloud, either by a human reader or a computerized “text-to-speech” function, during the math and science portions of the exam.
ACT does not allow reading accommodations for any students on the reading and English portions of the exam.
In the resolution letter (scroll down to view the full letter), OCR states that a representative from the ALSDE’s assessments section said the accommodations policy was changed after “observations of the use of the reader accommodation during state assessments and discussions about the reader accommodation with colleagues at national conferences and at the local level showed that the reader accommodation was being misused and prescribed to many students who did not actually require it for the ACT Aspire. The goal of the policy revision was to ensure that students who received the reader accommodation had a true need for it.”
The ALSDE’s policy was changed to add that a student must be “(r)eading two or more grade-levels below current enrollment grade” and the child’s reading disability must “severely limit the student from decoding at any level of difficulty.”
Grace has dyslexia and is served under a Section 504 plan, which provides access to accommodations to level the playing field with students who do not have dyslexia.
In the complaint, Rauworth alleged the ALSDE violated Grace’s Section 504 plan by setting that benchmark and changing the accommodations agreed to in Grace’s written Section 504 plan agreed to in August 2015. Rauworth was informed in February 2016, only six weeks prior to testing, that the accommodation would not be allowed.
The OCR agreed with Rauworth.
In the resolution letter, “OCR has determined that the ALSDE’s current policy regarding the reader accommodation for the ACT Aspire is in violation of Section 504 [of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973] and Title II [of the Americans with Disabilities Act].”
The OCR found the ALSDE, in requiring a student be currently reading at two or more grade levels below the student’s enrollment grade and also that the disability must severely limit the student from decoding at any level of difficulty was “eviscerating the student’s Section 504/IEP team’s responsibility to make the accommodation decision on an individualized basis, the policy fails to comply with Section 504 and Title II.”
In other words, by setting benchmarks for students to qualify for testing accommodations, the ALSDE took away that ability for the child’s Section 504/IEP team to make that determination.
The ALSDE has until November 30th of this year to revise the policy to comply with federal law. OCR must then review and approve the policy.
Nancy Anderson, Associate Director for the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program (ADAP), commenting on the resolution agreement said, “The non-discrimination mandates of 504 and Title II of the ADA are mighty powerful. Parents should feel heartened by this.” Anderson said all parts of a child’s plan, either under Section 504 or the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), should be individualized by the student’s school-based team.
A letter of agreement between the OCR and the ALSDE was signed September 8 by Dr. Philip Cleveland, serving as Alabama’s interim state superintendent. Rauworth’s letter was dated September 13. Her husband handed her the letter when she returned on September 19 from the Paralympics held in Rio de Janeiro, congratulating her on the outcome.
Rauworth works in public policy for people with disabilities. In a written statement Rauworth said, “Accommodations that level the playing field for our children are in fact their right! It is not a privilege or an unfair advantage! I hope that our efforts empower other parents to take action. It is important for us to know that we are not ‘just’ parents; we are advocates and champions for our child’s rights.”
Asked about the resolution, Rauworth was pleased. “It was a hard decision for us as a family to proceed with the OCR complaint,” she wrote, “but I am so glad that we did. I knew that the policy and how the issue was handled was wrong and I did not want to just fix it for our daughter. I wanted it changed so that others would not have to experience what we did. I heard so many stories from my friends in the dyslexia community. Those stories encouraged me to move forward.”
Tiffany Borden, co-founder of the Decoding Dyslexia Alabama advocacy group, said she, too, is happy about the outcome, saying, “Accommodations on these tests is the difference in success and failure for our children”. Decoding Dyslexia Alabama was instrumental in changing how Alabama’s schools screen for dyslexia and intervene when children show characteristics of dyslexia.
Regarding her daughter’s testing experience this spring, she added, “The night before Grace took the first test on the ACT Aspire without the audio accommodation, she broke down in tears. She was terrified that she was going to fail because she would not be able to read all the words in the questions. Because we filed the OCR complaint, we did not feel helpless. We shared with her that night how we were fighting to get the policy changed. Knowing this she felt stronger and more confident. We want her to know that if you see something that is wrong you must speak up and try to change it.”
That change should be in effect prior to the next round of testing, scheduled for Spring 2017.
The ALSDE has not yet responded to request for comment about the resolution.
It is unknown how many students were denied accommodations because of the policy.
*Due to privacy concerns, we are not using Grace’s real name.