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Students with disabilities and graduation exit exams: leveling the playing field.

Andrew Fry is a hard working, 18-year-old young man with autism who attends a high school in Indiana. He receives individual assistance in math, English (reading) and writing. Andrew's dream is to become an employee at a natural history museum. Michelle, Andrew's mother, is concerned that Andrew will not be able to fulfill his dream. To gain employment at a museum, Andrew will need to have at least a standard high school diploma. To receive a standard diploma, Andrew must achieve appropriate grades in all of his classes and pass the state's graduation exit exam.

With the help of appropriate accommodations, Andrew successfully participates in the general education setting and is completing Indiana's "Core 40" program, the first step towards graduating with a standard diploma This academic program requires students to choose from a list of specific classes each with assigned credits. Students are responsible for maintaining a C grade average in at least 40 core course credits across the major academic areas. The next step is to pass the state's graduation exit exam, I-STEP+. Although there are other options for high school graduation in Indiana, Andrew and his family believe this program would help him achieve his dream.

Michelle does not think she knows all of the possible exam accommodations that could be made available to Andrew, nor does she believe that these adjustments have been offered during IEP meetings. She thinks that if she knew where to find more information she might be able to push for more specific exam accommodations for Andrew.

Most parents dream of the day their adolescent graduates from high school with a standard diploma. The diploma signifies that a student has met all of the school, district, and state requirements. For students with special needs, earning a standard diploma usually means that they will have better education and job opportunities after high school.

In some states, the dream of earning a diploma is becoming harder to achieve. Out of 50 states, 15 require all students to complete specific high school classes with passing grades and pass a minimum competency or graduation exit exam which varies from state to state. Some states have other options for gaining standard diplomas, but many families think students with special needs should be given equal opportunities to take and pass their state or district's graduation exit exam. To level the playing field in these cases, these students are allowed to receive accommodations during testing. Unfortunately, parents are not often given information about the types of allowable and helpful accommodations available. The following questions and answers can help them learn about and promote the best possible accommodations for their adolescent with a disability.

Why do students with special needs participate in graduation exit exams?

Graduation exit exams belong to a family of assessments or tests called large-scale assessments. The exams measure students' learning at the state or district level and almost every state and many school districts have their own assessments. The purposes for these tests range from measuring students' performance to making sure that students are learning what the state and/or district believe they should know as a result of a high school education.

Congress passed three pieces of legislation to help measure achievement. The Improving America's Schools Act and Goals 2000: Educate America Act together emphasize higher academic expectations for all students, improved student performance and more thorough measures of student achievement. A third piece of legislation, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), makes sure that students with special needs are included in this national push for higher expectations and improved student performance by requiring states to include all students in statewide assessments. (See resources to find additional information.)

In an effort to conform to all three acts, 19 states have gone a step further and have mandated graduation exit exams. Students must pass these exams to receive a standard diploma. 15 of these 19 require all students to pass the graduation exit exam: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. Three states, Minnesota, New Jersey and Ohio, do not require some students with special needs to take the graduation exit exam to receive a standard diploma, deferring to each student's individual education plan (IEP). Texas has an alternate exam that students with special needs must participate in to receive a diploma.

Why is it helpful to include students with disabilities in graduation exit exams?

Before legislation specific to expectations was enacted, the levels of expectations for students with special needs, as compared to their peers, varied. Most of the time, the expectations were lower and sometimes they varied, even between schools in the same district. In addition, teachers, districts and states were also not held accountable for what they taught these students. These low levels of accountability allowed students with special needs to graduate with a diploma, but many of these students were not prepared for life after high school.

These students did not have the skills their non-disabled peers had, so they were not as readily employed. To combat these minimal expectations and lack of educator accountability, schools, districts and states are now required to include the scores of students with disabilities with all other students who take the same assessment. This pushes schools, districts and states to recognize that students with special needs must be taught the same core curriculum and be given the opportunity to learn the same information as their peers.

How can parents argue for improvements in the quality of instruction?

The biggest impact that parents can have in their child's education is to become involved, to be active monitors of what is taught in the classroom. By learning about their state's and district's expectations for all students, parents can help make sure that what is taught in the classroom meets requirements. Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act specifically identifies parent involvement as a crucial part of improved instruction for all students.

The website of the Center for Law and Education (http://www.cleweb. org) has several articles on how parents can make sure their child is learning. The RMC Research Corporation (http:// includes a piece explaining what parents can do to make sure that their child's school holds high academic expectations for their students. All of these articles recognize the importance of a parent's active participation in their child's education as a basis for improving instruction.

Do all students, regardless of their disability, take the same graduation exit exam?

Students with disabilities in the 15 states identified earlier have the opportunity to take the same graduation exit exam as their peers. In some states there are alternate exams available, but in most cases these are only for students who work primarily on life skills and other education skills that are not in the general education curriculum. To show advancement in learning, these students need an assessment that is more individualized. Alternate exams assess the knowledge and skills of this student group through processes including, but not limited to, individual interviews (one-to-one teacher student interviews about the student's accomplishments), portfolios (a collection of the student's work that shows the student's broad range of abilities) and adapted assessments (assessments that have been altered in length, material given, answer format). Texas is the only state that offers the alternate exam as a way for students with special needs to earn a standard diploma.

Can parents ask for modifications or accommodations to the graduation exit exam?

Before answering this question, the terms modifications and accommodations need to be defined: they are two different forms of support that help students with special needs become an active part of the general education classroom.

Modifications are changes made to instruction or materials that help students work towards the same goals as their peers. For example, modifications to an exam might include the deletion of some items on the test, abbreviated instructions, or a shortened essay question. Modifications to large-scale assessments are not allowed. Because of this, states are now recognizing the need to assess the skills of students who are unable to complete the large-scale assessment. Therefore, the use of these alternate assessments for identified students has increased.

Accommodations are changes to the academic environment or the presentation of the material and are allowed in varying degrees by states and districts on graduation exit exams. Examples include small group or individual settings, extended time to complete the exam, the repetition of instructions when needed, or students being allowed to tape record their responses to an essay question. Appropriate accommodations, typically the same ones that help the students succeed in the classroom, can help students perform their best on a graduation exit exam.

What accommodations can parents request?

The accommodations allowed for graduation exit exams vary by state and sometimes by district. It is important that any accommodation match the student's needs and cannot be interpreted as an unfair advantage offered to the student on the graduation exit exam. The National Center on Education Outcomes (NCEO) gathered information about large-scale assessments and grouped the different types of accommodations into four areas: presentation, response, setting, and timing/scheduling. Not every state grants accommodations in each of these areas, but it is important for parents to know what other states and districts allow so they can advocate for additional appropriate accommodations for their adolescent. The following table gives brief descriptions of each of the areas.

How can parents effectively promote test modifications for their adolescent with special needs? Just as parents advocate for their adolescent with special needs in the classroom, they need to do the same for accommodations during graduation exit exams. To be effective, parents need to be knowledgeable about the state requirements for these tests. Table 2 provides basic information on the graduation exit exams of 15 states, including a state contact person or department who can answer questions. To help their student prepare for the test, parents can:

* Set and maintain high expectations for their adolescent and ensure that all pro-fessionals involved with him or her do, too.

* Ask about the four accommodation areas included in Table 1. Often, the student must be receiving a specific support in the general education classroom to be provided with accommodations during the graduation exit exam.

* Review past graduation exit exams. These are often found on the state's education web site.

* Find out the testing procedures used in the state or district.

* Talk to their teenager about the test. Parents can stress the importance of the exam without instilling fears or raising doubts in the adolescent.

* Ask school personnel to help them interpret the results of the test.

* Talk about their adolescent's goals for the future, what necessary steps should be taken to meet those goals and determine whether there is an alternative to the graduation exit exam that better suits their adolescent's needs.

* Ask questions.

Students with special needs who live in the 15 states that have graduation exit exams are being held to the same high expectations as their general-education peers. Parents can help their teenager with disabilities to participate more confidently in the graduation exit exam by being well informed about the exam and by advocating for appropriate accommodations.

To date, Andrew has taken the I-STEP+ twice. When the results of his first attempt came back in January of 2001 and he had not passed the exam, Andrew was required to take remedial math and English classes during the second semester of his sophomore year. He was also required to take a summer school class specifically to help him prep for the I-STEP+ during his junior year. Before he took the exam in September 2001, Andrew chose to participate in one-hour review sessions that were held on the five days before the exam. He also worked with his private tutor on additional skills.

Michelle appreciates this extra support for Andrew, but she has been disappointed with the accommodations provided. Although Andrew was in the resource room when he took I-STEP+, he was still in a group setting. Andrew performs better in testing situations when he receives individual attention because the attention helps relieve test anxiety and the lack of distractions helps him to focus. The one accommodation offered to Andrew was to allow him to get up and walk around the room periodically. Michelle understands the necessity of I-STEP+ and why certain modifications cannot be made to the exam. She also knows that with appropriate accommodations--one-on-one instruction, extended time, additional breaks during the testing--Andrew is successful in the general education classroom. Michelle realizes that she must continue to work at bridging the gap between what is offered in the classroom and what is offered during the exam.
Table 1
Accommodations from Across the States

The Four Areas Presentation Response Setting Timing/Scheduling
Descriptions The oral presentation or the written appearance of the
assessment. Neither presentation method disqualifies the exam by
paraphrasing, shortening, or otherwise altering the exam. The student's
method of conveying his or her answers. The student's answers must be
scripted, typed, or otherwise recorded exactly as the student stated
them. The location or setting where the student takes the exam. The
location must be monitored. The amount of time a student is allowed to
complete either sections of the exam or the entire exam.


1) A student with poor vision is provided with an exam that has
larger print.

2) The instructor reads the directions and questions out loud to
the students.


A student says out loud which "bubble" he/she wants marked and the
scribe fills in the bubble.

2) A student types their answers to an essay question into a word


The student takes the exam in a room with no other students.

A small group of students take the test in a room to themselves.


The student is allowed extended time to complete the written section
of the exam.

The student can take as many breaks as he/she needs to be able to
concentrate on the exam.

Table 2
Graduation Exit Exams: Participating States, the Exams, and Contact
Information *

State Name of exam Number of opportunities
 given to pass exam and/or
 additional information

Alabama Alabama High School 6 with additional
 Graduation Exam ASGE) opportunities
 post-graduation if necessary,
 Additional information is
 found at http://www.alsde.

Arizona Arizona Instrument to 5
*** Measure Standards Specific testing for
 (AIMS) students with disabilities
 is being investigated.

Florida Florida Comprehensive 7
 Assessment Test - For FAQs see:
 Sunshine State
 Standards (FCAT-SSS) fcat/pdf/fcatfaq1.pdf
 Also, see question 17.

Georgia Georgia High School 5 (see)
 Graduation Test
 For specific legal
 information see http://www.

Indiana GQE (Graduation 5
 Qualifying Exam) For FAQs see:
 publications/pdf istep/

Louisiana Graduation Exit English/Language Arts and
 Examination for the Math: 7 opportunities.
 21st Century (GEE-21) Science and Social Studies:
 4 (beginning in 2004).

Maryland Maryland High School Re-takes decided on an
*** Assessments individual basis.

Mississippi SATP (end-of-course) 3 times per year until
*** exams in U.S. History passing score is achieved.
 from 1877, English II, For specific information
 Biology I, Algebra I about the exams see:

New Mexico New Mexico High School 4
 Competency Exam

New York Regents Examination Until the student graduates
 Program or turns 21. For specific
 information on retesting:

North Carolina "Exit exam of "Additional opportunities
*** essential skills" will be provided for those
 In effect for students students who need them."
 graduating in 2005. http://www.ncpublicschools.
 NC Test of Computer org/student promotion/
 Skills diploma req.html

South Carolina The High School Exit 4
 Examination (to be
 replaced in 2003) reports/exit2000/

Tennessee Gateway Test end- Multiple opportunities to
*** of-course tests; retake the exams. See:
 Algebra I, Biology I.
 English II education/ci/cigateendof

Texas TAAS exit level tests Multiple opportunities to
*** or end-of-course retake the exams.
 tests. Alternate
 assessments are Please see:
 available to achieve
 a standard diploma. student.assessment/
 ** A specific test resources/grad/eocgrad.html
 for students with
 disabilities will
 be introduced in 2005.

Virginia 4/10 of the Standards No limit on additional
*** of Learning (SOL) opportunities
 exams or acceptable
 score on the SAT II,
 ACT, CLEP, or the

State Name of exam State education web site

Alabama Alabama High School
 Graduation Exam ASGE)

Arizona Arizona Instrument to
*** Measure Standards

Florida Florida Comprehensive
 Assessment Test -
 Sunshine State
 Standards (FCAT-SSS)

Georgia Georgia High School
 Graduation Test

Indiana GQE (Graduation http://ideanet.doe.state.
 Qualifying Exam)

Louisiana Graduation Exit
 Examination for the us/DOE/asps/home.asp
 21st Century (GEE-21)

Maryland Maryland High School
*** Assessments or
 school/what is/factsheet.

Mississippi SATP (end-of-course)
*** exams in U.S. History
 from 1877, English II,
 Biology I, Algebra I

New Mexico New Mexico High School
 Competency Exam

New York Regents Examination

North Carolina "Exit exam of http://www.ncpublicschools.
*** essential skills" org/
 In effect for students
 graduating in 2005.
 NC Test of Computer

South Carolina The High School Exit
 Examination (to be
 replaced in 2003)

Tennessee Gateway Test end-
*** of-course tests; education/
 Algebra I, Biology I.
 English II

Texas TAAS exit level tests
*** or end-of-course
 tests. Alternate
 assessments are
 available to achieve
 a standard diploma.
 ** A specific test
 for students with
 disabilities will
 be introduced in 2005.

Virginia 4/10 of the Standards
*** of Learning (SOL) VDOE/
 exams or acceptable
 score on the SAT II,
 ACT, CLEP, or the

State Name of exam Contact person or office

Alabama Alabama High School Mabrey Whetstone,
 Graduation Exam ASGE) coordinator
 (334) 242-8114
 "Mastering the Maze"

Arizona Arizona Instrument to Academic Standards &
*** Measure Standards Accountability
 (AIMS) Tel: (602) 542-5031

Florida Florida Comprehensive Florida Department of
 Assessment Test - Education
 Sunshine State Janet Adams
 Standards (FCAT-SSS) (850) 487-3164,
 Suncom 277-3164
 Jane Silveria
 (850) 487-1603,
 Suncom 277-1603

Georgia Georgia High School Phil Pickens, Director,
 Graduation Test Division of Exceptional
 Students, at
 (404) 656-3963. E-mail:

Indiana GQE (Graduation Jon Barada
 Qualifying Exam)
 Room 229, State House
 Indianapolis, IN 46204-2798
 (317) 232-6616

Louisiana Graduation Exit Leslie Lightbourne
 Examination for the (225) 342-3633
 21st Century (GEE-21)

Maryland Maryland High School School and Community
*** Assessments Outreach Office
 410-767-0600 or

Mississippi SATP (end-of-course) Mississippi Department of
*** exams in U.S. History Education Office of Special
 from 1877, English II, Education at (601) 359-3498.
 Biology I, Algebra I

New Mexico New Mexico High School The New Mexico State
 Competency Exam Department of Education
 at: (505) 827-5641

New York Regents Examination Eastern Regional Office
 Program 518-486-6366
 Western Regional Office
 Hudson Valley Regional
 Long Island Regional Office
 New York City Office

North Carolina "Exit exam of For more information on
*** essential skills" the involvement of students
 In effect for students with special needs,
 graduating in 2005. see: http://www.ncpublic-
 NC Test of Computer
 Skills ingfaq.html
 and http://www.ncpublic-

South Carolina The High School Exit Susan DuRant, Director
 Examination (to be at 734-8806
 replaced in 2003)

Tennessee Gateway Test end- Special Education
*** of-course tests; Programs at
 Algebra I, Biology I. 615-741-3340
 English II

Texas TAAS exit level tests The Student Assessment
*** or end-of-course Division at (512) 463-9536.
 tests. Alternate Ask for the division on
 assessments are students with special needs.
 available to achieve
 a standard diploma.
 ** A specific test
 for students with
 disabilities will
 be introduced in 2005.

Virginia 4/10 of the Standards Anita Swan, head of Parent
*** of Learning (SOL) Resources at (804) 371-7420
 exams or acceptable
 score on the SAT II,
 ACT, CLEP, or the

* The data in this Table is current as of 9/25/02. Any states that have
added Graduation Exit Exams to their curriculum since 12/01 have not
been added.

** Some colleges and universities use the TAAS exam as an entrance
exam. If a student is exempt from the TAAS and wants to attend one of
these colleges or universities, this student will be required to take
the SAT.

*** Applicable to graduating classes where the freshman class begin in
2001 or after.


Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (C.F.R. 34 [section] 1400 et seq.),

Goals 2000: America's Education Act of 1994 (Public Law Number 103227),

Improving America's Schools Act of 1994 (IASA),

FairTest: The National Center for Fair & Open Testing,

Public Agenda Online,

Focuses On Special Education,


The Education and Research Network,

The National Center on Education Outcomes, 1 program.htm, by the Center for Law and Education 1/tool.htm, by the Center for Law and Education

Parents ask about standards, http://www., by The RMC Research Corporation

Louise Lord Nelson was a special educator in Indianapolis, IN for eight years. She is currently a doctoral candidate at the Beach Center on Disability at the University of Kansas.

Ann Turnbull is a Professor in the Department of Special Education and Co-Director of the Beach Center on Disability at the University of Kansas. She has authored 12 books and over 175 articles and chapters. She is the parent of three children, one of whom is an adult son with cognitive and mental health disabilities.
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Author:Nelson, Louise G.L.; Turnbull, Ann P.
Publication:The Exceptional Parent
Geographic Code:1U3IN
Date:Nov 1, 2002
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