Testing Accommodations Guide

Assessment practices are shifting dramatically, and these shifts will have significant impact on special education. In the 2014-2015 school year, nearly all students will be expected to take the general assessment. To accommodate students with disabilities, there will be an incredible array of accessibility options. Historically, only 1-2% of students used testing accommodations, but the new assessments will allow for three levels of accommodation support and many supports will be embedded in the assessments. Read on and learn more about these shifts and how they’ll affect special ed.


Watch our short video overview onTesting Accommodation Guidelines

New assessments will bring several shifts including:

  • Increased assessment difficulty tied to new standards.
  • Eliminated modified assessments — the students who took the modified assessments will be expected to take the general assessment. Only 1% of students (about 10% of special ed) will qualify to take the alternate assessment.
  • More reliance on accessibility supports and accommodations — the two Common Core testing consortiums, PARCC and Smarter Balanced, see technology supports and accommodations implemented through a UDL (Universal Design for Learning) approach as the key to ensure students can “show what they know.” In the old model, very few students were allowed to use accommodations. With the new assessments, technology supports will be widespread.

Before and after testing accommodation model illustration

Both PARCC and Smarter Balanced define three levels of support to ensure that all students have appropriate universal tools, designated supports, and/or accommodations to best support each student’s needs. Some supports will be embedded in the assessment for all students, and some supports must be chosen and activated by the IEP or 504 team through a diagnostic process.

Regardless of whether you’re in a PARCC, Smarter Balanced, or non-Common Core state, it likely that you will be able to accommodate your students’ needs during testing—you just have to know what your state’s rules are. In nearly all cases, if a student needs an accommodation, 1) the need has to be determined diagnostically, 2) it has to be written into the IEP , and 3) it has to be used in instruction throughout the year (well ahead of the test).

For a nice overview of these shifts, watch an on-demand webinar presented by Ruth Ziolkowski. You’ll gain an understanding of what the new assessments mean for special education and testing accommodation policies.

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Follow these simple steps to meet your state’s testing accommodation criteria!

1 Determine the need for accommodations using a diagnostic tool

Accommodations should always begin with understanding a student’s needs. Accommodations are meant to be based upon evidence, not belief. It is not sufficient merely to assign them without documenting each student’s strengths and needs. Diagnostic tools like PAR can streamline and simplify the process while increasing fidelity.

2 Write the accommodation into the student’s IEP

All states require that any assistive technology used during state testing must be listed on a student’s IEP, and that the technology is used in their daily instruction. Use the PARCC and Smarter Balanced policies, but note that your state may make exceptions. Visit your state’s department of education website to see your state’s testing accommodation policies.

3 Use the accommodation instructionally throughout the year and on the assessment

Both consortiums require that if a student receives accommodations on the assessment, they must also use the accommodation throughout the year. Many districts are more specific and require that an accommodation be used instructionally for at least three months prior to the assessment. Establish your screening procedure early enough to get students the accommodations they need early in a timely fashion.


Protocol for Accommodations in Reading (PAR) is the only diagnostic assessment that guides practitioners to determine the need for the read aloud accommodations called for in PARCC and Smarter Balanced. Download the print version of PAR or check out uPAR (Universal Protocol for Accommodations in Reading)—it’s 20x faster to administer!

The main two testing consortiums are PARCC and Smarter Balanced. Most Common Core states have joined one or the other consortium, but as these things go, nothing is written in stone. States may still switch, drop out, or join, so check your state’s current status. The map below shows state statuses as of November 2015.

PARCC and Smarter Balanced Accommodations Map


PARCC aims to provide equitable access through technology and universal design principles. You can preview sample questions in their computer testing environment and read the latest accommodations guidance from their website. For a nice overview, check out this PARCC teacher’s guide.

Most decisions regarding designated supports and individualized accommodations must be documented in a student’s Personal Needs Profile (PNP). The PNP allows certain accessibility features to be turned on for the test, and if accessibility features are not indicated in the PNP, then the student will not be distracted by unfamiliar features.

Where the old assessments were simple multiple choice, 60% of the PARCC literacy assessment will involve writing. The good news is that PARCC recognizes the need for writing accommodations and included word prediction on the list of approved individualized accommodations. This is great news for your Co:Writer users. Co:Writer 7 includes new testing accommodation supports to comply with your state’s restrictions. Be sure your students have access well ahead of the assessment—they’ll need to use it instructionally qualify to use it on the test. Request a quote to upgrade your Co:Writer license to version 7.

The PARCC testing consortium released testing accommodation guidance in an appendix. New guidelines require a “diagnostic evaluation” or “educational assessment” showing the need for accommodations. Without this data, testing scores are invalidated.

Read the guidance here: Appendix D: Text-to-Speech, Human Reader, or Interpreter Accommodation Guidance for English Language Arts/Literacy Assessments

Learn more about PARCC accommodations from their Accommodations Manual.

Smarter Balanced

Both assessment consortiums make provisions for accommodations and they are are fundamentally similar, but each handles things slightly differently. Where PARCC uses a Personal Needs Profile to document accessibility decisions, Smarter Balanced specifies that accessibility decisions be documented in a student’s Individual Student Assessment Accessibility Profile (ISAAP) and the state Test Information Distribution Engine (TIDE). The ISAAP is to be guided by and consistent with the student’s IEP.

Smarter Balanced issued a nice FAQ document (PDF) regarding their accessibility guidelines (released September 11,2013). It outlines which accessibility tools are available for which students and details which tools are embedded and which are not. Here’s a short sample of the embedded accommodations listed:

• ASL sign language videos for ELA listening items and math

• Braille

• Closed captioning for ELA listening items

• Text-to-Speech for ELA reading passages — only available for students in grades 6+ with the need documented on an IEP or 504 plan

Non-embedded accommodations include: abacus, alternate response options (adapted keyboards, mouse, touch screen, switches, etc.), calculator, multiplication table, print on demand (paper copies), read aloud, scribe, and speech-to-text.


Source: Education Week

Take a quick look at the differences in supports allowed by PARCC and Smarter Balanced …

View Infographic

Did you know… Word prediction is now allowed on year-end assessments in PARCC states and Texas.

Join us for a new webinar Assessment Prep Power Hour: Using Word Prediction as an Approved PARCC and TEKS Accommodation to learn more about what this change will mean for your students!

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Check with your state for the most up-to-date policies

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