Exams and Standardized Tests

row of students at desks looking down at their workExams and standardized tests can be stressful for students and staff in general, and in particular, for students with learning disabilities (LDs). While many students receive accommodations during regular instructional time to ensure they can access concepts and materials, standardized tests and formal exams do not always allow the same level of differentiation. The result is that many students with LDs can struggle with testing, which then shows in the outcome.

It thus becomes important for teachers to plan and teach in a way that allows all students an equal opportunity to succeed. Recognizing that all students have unique learning needs and being flexible in how students are asked to demonstrate their understanding will allow students with LDs, and indeed all students, to be prepared and able to participate in regular testing. This concept, commonly known as “Universal Design for Learning”, is essential to creating equity in the realm of exams in secondary school.

In their webinar, “Strategies to Support the Success of Students with LDs on Exams and Standardized Tests”, Jenessa Dworet and Chris Sands shared some of their key strategies to help students be successful in exam settings, many of which will be explored in this section of the Learning Module.

For a more in-depth look at the needs of students with LDs during exams and standardized tests, click here to access the webinar “Strategies to Support the Success of Students with LDs on Exams and Standardized Tests”

Picture of a test and a broken pencil

Self-Advocacy for Exams and Tests

In preparation for exams, students must be vocal about what they know works for them, and what does not. Many times students will not ask for what they need, and as such, feel even more helpless and as though they will fail. Students should also be able to explain what does not work for them, to avoid accommodations that do not actually make a difference in their demonstration of learning. For example, a student that struggles to write may ask for help in an exam but does not voice that they are also not comfortable typing. This student may be given a laptop or Chromebook when what they may actually need is a scribe or speech to text technology.

Self-advocacy can take many forms at the secondary level. Most often it is in the form of a simple conversation with a teacher regarding what they need to feel they are able to access the necessary information and express their knowledge. This may require some prompting from the teacher and even role-playing activities that can be done by guidance counselors or the student success team.

Self-advocacy can also be in a written form, as many students feel uncomfortable or even stigmatized when they voice their needs to a teacher. For example, a student may not want to voice that they would like to be seated away from friends who may distract them in an exam setting. There are many examples of cards, pamphlets, or even electronic documents that outline a student’s personality, strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes, etc. It is important to note that this is not an IEP or official document, but rather a tool created by the student to help them access the support they feel they need. Creating a section specific to exam support can be helpful for teachers when deciding what to provide the student, and ensuring it falls in line with school and provincial policies.

Click here to access an example of self-advocacy cards created by Julia Osborne, a Special Education Resource Teacher with York Region DSB. 

Growth Mindset

Tests and exams offer a concrete evaluation of skills and learning, and as such, they can be ground zero for students who feel they have failed and have labeled themselves as incapable or “stupid”. We often see the emergence of fixed mindsets after receiving a grade for a test.

Teachers sometimes think that growth mindset means merely encouraging students to think that they can achieve anything if they “try hard”, but in reality, it is the educators' responsibility to ensure that students are provided with strategies to apply alongside their motivation to improve. Many of the exam strategies listed above can help students, but they must also ask themselves questions in order to tackle some missing links and find further strategies to improve.

  1.       Are my notes complete, accurate, and organized?
  2.       What are some subject-specific study strategies I should be using?
  3.       Knowing myself as a learner, what should I be focusing on?
  4.       What is the format of the final exam? [1]

Students should be asking themselves, as well as the teachers across their different courses, these questions in order to properly assess how they can make changes in their own habits to improve.

Day to Day Classroom Support

There are some strategies classroom teachers can use in their day-to-day practice that can help students in terms of staying organized in their notes, as well as knowing what exactly they should be keeping note of and studying at home. These include:

  1.       Sentence Starters
  2.       Graphic Organizers
  3.       Font Size & Spacing

[1] Dworet & Sands, 2017