Many places in the United States have their own standardized tests that they use to measure student success in K-12 public schools. In my home state of Virginia, these tests are called the Standards of Learning tests, also known as SOL tests or simply SOLs. At least one of these tests is administered a year, from third grade to twelfth grade, and students sometimes take up to four of these exams per year. While they technically don’t count for a grade, students need to pass a certain number of SOLs in order to advance in school or graduate, and they can be particularly stressful for students, especially students with disabilities. While I graduated from high school in 2015, I have continued to work with students across several Virginia school districts and have seen firsthand that not much has changed since I took SOL tests as a low vision student many years ago. Here are my tips for SOL test accommodations and low vision, along with some personal stories.
Order tests early
Like most students, I took my first SOL tests when I was in third grade. However, due to confusion on whether I needed large print for the exam, the school forgot to order an SOL test in large print for me, and there was no test available for me when test day came- not even a small print test. I ended up sitting in a first-grade classroom for a week while my school scrambled to order large print tests for me to take, and I ended up taking all four tests in one day instead of having one day to complete each test. Since the test proctor offered candy between tests, nine-year-old Veronica didn’t mind having to answer all of those test questions one bit.
This experience taught my family and I three different things that helped us when dealing with SOLs in the years to come:
- If a student receives large print in the classroom, then they should generally also receive a large print SOL, or another accessible copy of the test
- Make sure that tests are ordered at least six weeks ahead of time, or by whatever deadline is set by the state
- It’s helpful to take a break between tests to avoid eyestrain, and it’s even better if that break includes candy!
- My Talk At A Future Date: What I Wish I Learned About AT Before Starting College
- Common File Types For Vision Impairment and Print Disabilities
- How I Document Accessibility Preferences With Low Vision
Know what a large print test is (and isn’t)
My vision condition has progressed over the years, so the large print test I took in third grade was impossible for me to read in eighth grade. I assumed that the test booklet could be customized for my individual eye condition, but that’s not actually the case. All of the large print paper test booklets share the following conditions:
- The large print test is printed on oversized paper, covering up to three standard-sized desks in size.
- The text is enlarged to size 18-20 point Tahoma font, with no options for larger font or different fonts
- As of 2017, images are only enlarged 166%, and may not be enlarged in high resolution
- Students must use pencils on the large print test unless they have a special accommodation for pens/highlighters
- The ten field/test questions on the traditional exam are eliminated, as are the fill-in-the-blank, true/false, pick multiple, and other free-response question formats. I had fewer questions than everyone else, and the questions were multiple choice
- By default, students who receive large print tests will have to fill out the bubble sheet for transcribing their answers, unless they have an accommodation for a scribe
One year, I had a teacher complain to the principal that I finished before everyone else, to which my family and I had to explain that I had ten fewer questions than everyone else, so naturally, I would finish quicker. I also didn’t have to transfer my answers to a Scantron document, so that saved time as well.
- Instructor Evaluations and Low Vision
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What about digital tests?
Digital SOL tests were introduced when I was in middle school, and I was extremely excited to be able to take my test on a computer instead of a large print book. Unfortunately, the SOL testing software did not support magnification for text or images, and still does not support zoom magnification or the use of digital magnifying tools, and most tests do not support text-to-speech either. If a student with vision loss wants to take an SOL test with the option to have a test read aloud, they will need to have a read-aloud accommodation, which consists of a proctor reading the test to them.
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My testing accommodations
As a student with low vision who accessed the general curriculum, I received the following SOL testing accommodations, which were near identical to the accommodations listed in my IEP and 504 Plan:
- Large print exam
- Read-aloud as needed- I could ask my proctor to read parts of the test as needed, but I didn’t need them to read the whole test
- Line tracker to follow text- for me, this was an index card
- Scribe for the answer sheet
- Use of physical magnifying glasses to enlarge materials
- Use of pens and highlighters
- Small group/individual testing with proctors (I did not take the exam with other students in my class)
- Adjustable lighting, i.e using a lamp instead of overhead lights
- Starting in 2013- use of a projector to magnify the SOL exam
- Starting in 2013- use of a whiteboard to work out math problems
- Starting in 2014- use of an accessible iPad calculator
- Common Classroom Accommodations For Low Vision
- Magnifying Glasses For Low Vision
- Using An Overhead Projector For Standardized Testing
More about my SOL calculator
Prior to me transferring to a new high school, I had never found an appropriate calculator that I could both use independently and use on an SOL test. As a result, I just never used a calculator on my SOL tests and took longer to finish exams, but the instructional technology specialist at my second high school introduced me to the myScript calculator app that I could use on a school iPad with Guided Access enabled. This app was then approved for my specific use on the SOL by the Virginia Department of Education. I used this for my Chemistry SOL and found it very helpful, but have not personally used it on any math SOLs.
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- How To Use Guided Access For Testing
- How To Create An Accessible Formula Sheet
Failing SOL tests
I managed to pass all of the SOL tests that I needed to graduate, which meant that I passed at least two English exams, two math exams, two science exams, two history exams, and another exam in one of those subjects. Unfortunately, I did fail one SOL test- the Geometry SOL. While my teacher had been passionate about creating accessible materials and providing tests in large print, my Geometry SOL featured several low-resolution images/graphs, and text that was difficult for me to read. I ended up taking the exam at least three times and failed each time, even though I received a high grade in Geometry. In retrospect, I likely would have passed if I had access to assistive technology such as digital magnifiers or larger print that I could read through a bifocal, instead of having to awkwardly project the test on a whiteboard while standing in the dark and writing answers on the whiteboard. Regardless, I still have a recurring dream that I have to take the Geometry SOL again on short notice or else I won’t graduate, and it’s been almost ten years.
For students like me who fail an SOL test but managed to pass the class, please know that you did not fail the test, the test failed you by not providing you the information in an accessible format. Don’t let this experience destroy your confidence in a subject.
Summary of SOL Test Accommodations and Low Vision
- Make sure that tests are ordered early so that the student can take the test as scheduled
- Large print tests cannot be customized and have a set font size, paper size, and other characteristics that cannot be changed
- Digital tests do not support magnification or use of traditional screen readers
- Keep testing accommodations consistent with day-to-day classroom and testing accommodations
- Calculators will need to be pre-approved by the SOL testing group
- Students do not fail tests due to accessibility issues, tests fail students due to accessibility issues.