Federal laws promise children with learning disabilities access to special education services, including testing accommodations.
There are many different kinds of learning disabilities (LD) that can require testing accommodations, but the three most common forms of learning disabilities are reading disabilities such as dyslexia, written language disabilities, and math disabilities.
Intellectual disabilities, emotional disorders, and sensory impairments are not considered learning disabilities. However, some disabilities that are not LD impact a child's ability to learn and are covered under the special education laws. For example, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is not a learning disability but does make it hard for children to control their behavior and to focus. Other disabilities that affect memory, social skills, or cognitive processes such as multi-tasking also affect learning.
The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) guarantees every child with a disability a free and appropriate public education designed to meet her individual needs. IDEA provides some funding for state-administered special education programs and guarantees education services for children with disabilities, including LD, from birth through high school.
Some children with LD do not qualify to receive services under IDEA but fortunately do qualify for similar protections under another law, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act provides that children with disabilities cannot be excluded from or discriminated against under any federally funded programs or activities because of disability.
Section 504 applies to public school districts, higher education institutions, and other state and local government education agencies. In addition, the Americans with Disabilities Act extends the range of Section 504 to cover the full range of state or local public schools, programs, or activities even if they do not receive any federal funding.
A testing accommodation is any change made in testing in order to “level the playing field” and prevent children's disabilities from interfering with their ability to demonstrate their actual skill level. Testing accommodations are not intended to alter or lower the standards or expectations for a subject or test, or to give learning disabled children an unfair advantage.
To receive testing accommodations either IDEA or Section 504, a child must first be formally identified as having a learning disability. The child must then obtain an individualized plan from her school that details, among other things, what testing accommodations the child may receive in order to help increase their educational success. For children protected under IDEA, this plan is referred to as an Individualized Education Program (IEP). For those who qualify under the Rehabilitation Act it is called a “504 plan.”
To find out more about the process for obtaining an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for your child, see Nolo's series of articles on IEPs and special education.
There are many different possible testing accommodations to consider when developing an IEP or 504 Plan. Testing accommodations may affect the presentation of the exam, permissible ways for the child to respond, the timing of the exam, and the setting in which the exam is given.
Some examples of testing accommodations include:
Under IDEA, the protections provided to children with disabilities enrolled in private school vary depending on two factors: whether the child was placed in private school by her parents or by the public school district, and whether this occurred before or after the child was found to be IDEA eligible. Children enrolled in private schools by their parents do not necessarily have the same rights to special education and testing accommodations as children in public schools. The National Center for Learning Disabilities provides more information on when children in public schools are entitled to special education services at www.ncld.org.