A teacher of the visually impaired says that her school ran into big trouble with the non-profit College Board over when a nearly blind student could take the PSAT, the qualifying exam for the National Merit Scholarship.
The e-mail, sent to me by Leslie Edmonds, who teaches at a high school in California, raises questions about just how flexible the College Board is in meeting the needs of students who need accommodations to take the standardized tests that it owns. The College Board owns the SAT as well as the PSAT and the Advanced Placement program.
In this case, a boy named Jimmy wanted to take the PSAT on a Saturday, along with the rest of the students at his school, so he wouldn’t have to miss any school. But he was forced to take it on a Wednesday by the College Board because, a spokeswoman said, that’s when the Braille test form was available.
Here’s the relevant part of the email from Edmonds, followed by a response from the College Board:
“Jimmy is on track for college and last fall there was an announcement made that the PSATs would be offered in October. I contacted the school and the secretary, Marlene, (i.e. heartbeat of the school) and I went online to the College Board to sign Jimmy up. We saw that the deadline for signing up students with disabilities was that day. We began the sign-up process and were not able to finish in one day. We finished the application and proof of disability the next day. A week later we were told we missed the deadline and would have to wait until next year. Marlene protested and pleaded our case, but the College Board would not budge. We submitted the request for accommodations anyway and Jimmy was approved for a Braille test and other accommodations....
“Fast-forward to this year. We requested the PSAT in Braille well ahead of time. The College Board then sent a letter stating that Jimmy would need to take the PSAT on Wed. October 12th when everyone else [at the school] would be taking the test on October 15th, a Saturday. Jimmy would need twice as long to the complete the test so he would be missing an entire day of school.
“As you can imagine, for a Braille reader this is a big deal. He was missing a test and several lectures and would have to make up work quickly since quarter grades were closing on the 14th. Again, Marlene pleaded with the College Board and asked if he could take the test on Saturday.
“I was going to be the Proctor for the test (College Board does not provide a qualified proctor) and had agreed to working on Saturday. The College Board did not budge. Then we asked if it was possible to break the test up in to two days so Jimmy would not miss too much school and would not be reading Braille for 6 hours straight. Also, if Jimmy stayed longer than the regular school day he would miss a Junior College class he was taking after school on his own.
“A Braille reader must keep their hands in the same position when reading and it can lead to hand cramping after a couple hours. Also, Braille students take about twice as long to read as print readers. Keep in mind they are decoding Braille with their hands while grasping content all at the same time.
“The College Board continually responded that Jimmy would need to take a day off from school to take the PSAT on October 12th and that the test must be completed in one day. Jimmy’s school felt he was being discriminated against and continued to fight for Jimmy to be able to take the test with his peers. The result is Jimmy took the test on Wednesday, October 12th and completed it before his Junior College class. We were both exhausted at the end. There are many aspects of the test that are extremely difficult for a visually impaired student, but we teach our students that it is a sighted world and that you need to overcome road blocks and not let them stop you. Jimmy missed school and ended up scrambling to get his work completed before grades closed on that Friday.
“We did find some good in all of this. Jimmy and I realized that his school is supportive of him and understands that each day is wrought with challenges. The administration and Jimmy’s IEP [Individualized Education Program] team fought for him and worked together to help one of their 5,000 students. As Jimmy’s teacher I was touched to see such an outpouring of support for a Special Education student.”
I asked the College Board to comment on this situation and here was the e-mail response, from Kathleen Fineout Steinberg, executive director of communications:
“Thank you again for bringing to my attention the letter you received from an educator concerned about the options afforded to visually-impaired students taking the PSAT/NMSQT. While I cannot speak specifically about this case without additional information about the student’s identity, I can outline the College Board’s current policy for students who take the PSAT/NMSQT with accommodations.
“Several years ago, the College Board began offering school-day (Wednesday) PSAT/NMSQT testing to make the PSAT/NMSQT accessible to as many students as possible. For students with disabilities, the introduction of Wednesday PSAT/NMSQT testing meant that the additional resources necessary for testing – including trained staff to work with them during the testing situation – were readily available. This year, 86 percent of participating high schools administered the PSAT/NMSQT on Wednesday. Because the vast majority of students test on Wednesday, the special test forms for students with disabilities – including Braille test forms – are created for the Wednesday exam. Visually-impaired students who require a Braille test form or other equivalently effective accommodations and who attend schools that administer the PSAT/NMSQT on Saturday are provided with two testing options: they may test on Wednesday utilizing the Braille test form, or they may test on Saturday with another appropriate accommodation, such as a reader.
“We regret that the accommodations options offered to visually-impaired students presented challenges for this student. We continually review our processes in order to provide access for all students, and will take into consideration the situation described by this educator as we consider future improvements in our programs and services.”
Kathleen Fineout Steinberg
Executive Director, Communications
The College Board
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