The Effects of High-Stakes Testing on Students with Disabilities

Instructor: Sarah Mills

Sarah is an educational freelance writer and has taught English and ESL in grades k-12 and college. She has a master's degree in both Literacy and TESOL.

In this lesson, teachers will learn about some of the common effects of high-stakes testing on students with learning disabilities. In addition, this lesson will provide teachers with strategies for improving these students' test performance.

High-Stakes Testing and Students with Disabilities

Over the past few decades, high-stakes, standardized testing has increasingly become the norm in the United States educational system. These tests are used to evaluate school systems, maintain accountability, inform instructional decisions, promote or retain students, and in some states and school districts, to evaluate teachers' performance.

While high-stakes tests affect everyone on some level, students with learning disabilities are affected profoundly. The stress of testing and other difficulties make testing these students a challenge. However, the tests themselves are intended, in part, to hold schools accountable for accommodations that may benefit students with learning disabilities.

Let's look at some common challenges of high-stakes testing for students with disabilities, as well as some ways that you can adapt your instruction to address some of these challenges. Then we'll review some of the potential benefits of high-stakes testing for students with learning disabilities.

Challenges of High-Stakes Tests

When discussing the U.S. educational system and its reliance on standardized assessments, many people argue that these tests provide special challenges for students with learning disabilities, including stress, decreased motivation, and increased retention rates. Let's examine each of these challenges.


Test-taking can be a stressful endeavor for anyone, but it could be argued that students with learning disabilities have even more to worry about.

  • Students with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) may worry excessively about their ability to sit still and focus on the test for extended periods of time.
  • Students with dyslexia may fear that teachers will forget to arrange to have the test read aloud to them, but may be too embarrassed to speak up.
  • Other students may stress about the potential consequences of not performing well, such as not being promoted to the next grade level.

All of these stressful thoughts and feelings can affect a student's attitudes about school, motivation to learn, and test performance.

Lack of Motivation

Having a learning disability can make learning difficult. Creating a culture that emphasizes test scores can lead to a lack of motivation in students with learning disabilities.

Many teachers are understandably stressed because of increasing scrutiny in a high-stakes testing environment. As a result, they may begin to 'teach to the test.' They may lose sight of their students' individualized learning needs. A student with ADHD, for example, may not benefit from repeated paper-based practice tests in preparation for an upcoming standardized assessment.

It's important to continue looking for strategies to boost engagement while helping students meet content standards.

Increased Retention Rates

Due to a process known as mandatory retention, some states allow schools to hold back students who do not pass standardized Language Arts tests in third grade. Even students with disabilities can be subject to mandatory retention policies in some school districts nationwide if they do not qualify for an exemption.

Unfortunately, not all students are good test-takers. High-stakes assessment scores may not provide an accurate reflection of student ability, thereby leading to the retention of students who are otherwise academically prepared for the next grade level. Holding students back can affect their self-esteem and confidence, which can be detrimental for students with learning disabilities who often already feel inferior to their classmates.

Review the guidelines for your state to be aware of mandatory retention policies as well as relevant exemptions.

Strategies to Address Challenges

Now let's look at some strategies for helping your students adapt to a high-stakes testing culture.

Stress Reduction

Teach students some methods for effectively calming their nerves and reducing stress associated with high-stakes testing. Instruct students to take a few deep breaths whenever they begin to feel stressed. You can also incorporate light movement activities in class, such as yoga poses or stretching, to promote exercise as a way of reducing stress. Sometimes encouraging students to talk or write about their stress can provide relief.


If you have students with learning disabilities in your classroom, they most likely have individualized education plans, or IEPs, which are reviewed and updated by special education staff at least once each year. These plans specify the accommodations that students need to receive in their academic classes so that they have equitable access to the curriculum.

In most cases, students are allowed to use at least some of these accommodations on standardized tests. Your school's testing coordinator should have the information about the approved accommodations for each test.

Some of the accommodations provided to students with learning disabilities include:

  • Extended time on assignments and tests
  • Ability to test in a quiet location that is free from distractions
  • Frequent breaks
  • Having someone read test questions aloud
  • Use of a calculator

You can help support your students by providing them with their accommodations in your classroom on a regular basis. If students are familiar with the accommodations they receive, they are more likely to use them to their benefit during testing.

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