Change is often difficult, even when we know it’s for the best. Getting married, starting a new job, or having a baby – these are critical moments in an individual’s life, and they often bring not only tremendous amounts of joy but also overwhelming anxiety and stress. The same can be said for special educators as they ponder the implications of the upcoming changes in the newly redesigned SAT exam.
As a Director of Special Education and a former Building-Level Test Accommodations Coordinator (TAC) for the ACT exam, the initial news of the redesigned SAT left me somewhat panicky. I was concerned about whether my students would receive the appropriate accommodations for the new assessment. I was also apprehensive about any changes to the approval process for utilizing those accommodations – would it be similar to the previous test, and would we have similar timelines?
Another major concern was whether the new SAT exam would be an objective tool for measuring the college readiness of students with disabilities. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, instead of just multiple choice questions, the redesigned SAT will feature a variety of question types and will no longer cover obscure vocabulary. Instead, the new exam focuses on vocabulary that students will consistently use in their post-secondary educational careers. Thankfully, students will no longer have to worry about words they’ll likely never encounter again, such as phrontistery or charientism.
One of the major differences between the SAT and the ACT is the format, which can often have a significant impact on special education students. Students taking the ACT must work through each content area in one sitting, whereas the redesigned SAT allows for students to complete the assessment in smaller, more manageable sections. Instead of four large sections, students taking the redesigned SAT will complete 10 smaller tests, helping to prevent test takers from becoming overwhelmed in the process.
All of these components are great news for students with disabilities. Research has demonstrated the benefits of allowing students to chunk sections of work. In addition, providing students with multiple ways to demonstrate their knowledge increases their likelihood of receiving a higher, more meaningful score on the assessment. Moreover, focusing the content of the exam on vocabulary they will actually use is essential for building students’ capacity for academic success.
As for the process, schools will still be able to request accommodations for students with a qualifying disability, including learning disabilities, visual impairments, physical impairments, and some medical diagnoses, such as diabetes. Ideally, these students should already be utilizing these accommodations as part of their current educational plan and not simply requesting them for the assessment. Fortunately, the process for submitting accommodation requests is now done electronically. The College Board’s Services for Students with Disabilities utilizes an online system (SSD online) through which the SSD Coordinator (the equivalent to the TAC for the ACT exam) can submit and track requests online. Supporting documentation can also be uploaded through this system. This simplifies the process while reducing the stress of having to make sure materials are mailed in on time.
Speaking of deadlines, the redesigned SAT timelines for the 2015-16 school year should be similar to this year’s timelines, based on the 2014-15 testing cycle.
Best of all, approval for accommodations for any one of the College Board’s assessment exams extends to all the others. In other words, if a student’s request for accommodations has been approved for the PSAT/NMSQT, SAT or AP exam, then he or she does not have to reapply when taking additional assessments. Students can now understand early on how they test with accommodations, allowing them to better prepare for the SAT exam in 11th grade. However, the downside is that students planning to take the PSAT/NMSQT in fall 2015 will probably need to submit their requests before the end of the school year in order to secure accommodations for the exam in October. Unfortunately, there seems to be little guidance for SSD Coordinators as to what that process looks like for students (at least in Michigan).
Finally, I was beyond excited to learn that in May 2015, all students will have access to FREE personalized SAT practice materials from Khan Academy in preparation for the redesigned assessment. This will be invaluable for special education students. In addition, there is supposed to be professional development available to all teachers and administrators in fall 2015. Unfortunately, the details have not yet been released, so let’s keep our fingers crossed that all goes according to plan and is truly meaningful for teachers and administrators.
Although the transition to a redesigned SAT exam came as a shock, and still causes me some anxiety, I believe the benefits to our students will be significant. It is also important to remember that, while schools cannot exempt students from taking the SAT exam (or whatever exam is used as the statewide assessment), students can still take the ACT exam if they or their parents believe that it may be a better measure of college readiness. Some states have simply elected to use the SAT exam as the FREE option for students, unlike when I was in high school and had to pay for both. If you are looking for information regarding the redesigned SAT exam, I suggest the following websites as starting points.
- College Board Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD)
- The College Board Delivering Opportunity
- The SAT vs. the ACT