State Standardized Tests/ SOL Accommodations For Low Vision

Every state has their own form of standardized tests. In my home state of Virginia, we have the Standards of Learning exams, most commonly referred to as 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. 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. For the majority of the student population, the tests are administered online with fill in the blank, choose multiple answers, and multiple choice questions, in addition to exams where the student writes an essay. There’s only one problem with these digital exams- they can’t be enlarged.

Before the digital exams came out, everyone took exams on pencil and paper, but I had a special exam that was in large print. In third grade, my first year of taking the SOLs, the school forgot to place an order for all four of my exams, so when test day came, I didn’t have a test, so the school decided I would go sit in a classroom with first graders while the rest of the class took exams. When the tests showed up a week later, I had to take all of the tests in one day, as opposed to having one day to complete each test. Luckily, the test proctor gave me candy inbetween tests as a way to apologize for what was going on. Ordering tests early is extremely important, as if you have a student who uses large print in the classroom, they need it in the testing environment too.

In middle school, the tests converted to a digital format, and I was beyond excited for this. I couldn’t wait to be able to enlarge text and graphs how I needed them, and be able to work with computers, since I love technology. As I expressed my excitement, someone turned to me and said “oh, you can’t enlarge this. The magnification feature is locked to prevent cheating.” While this was before I knew a lot about assistive technology and accessibility, I still thought that made absolutely no sense. How is being able to see something clearly considered cheating?

I think a lot of the stigma about receiving a large print test started once the digital tests started being used. The large print test was printed on ridiculously large paper, since it took up three desks in size. The text was enlarged to size 20 point font, and at the time I also had accommodations to use pens and highlighters, while other students had to use pencils. One interesting thing is that while the rest of the class could use a calculator, I was not permitted to use one because they did not have one that I could see. Another fun fact about the test is that 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 less questions than everyone else, and the questions were multiple choice. 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 less 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.

I always managed to pass my SOLs until I took geometry. My geometry teacher was awesome, and probably one of the best math teachers I had in school because they understood how to create accessible materials. Unfortunately, the people who created the SOLs did not know how to create accessible materials, as my mom and I found out that graphs and other images were only enlarged to 113% (as of 2017, they are now enlarged 166%, but since I receive materials enlarged to around 250%, this still wouldn’t be large enough). I wound up failing the SOL because I had so much difficulty with the graphs and shapes, but I was eligible to retake the exam the next semester.

As a student with an increasing interest in assistive technology, I suggested that the test be broadcast on a projector in a classroom so I could work out the problem on the white board and then record my answer in the test booklet. It was easier than magnifying the test, as my eyes hurt whenever I used a magnifying glass, and I was not provided any other assistive technology like a CCTV. Because I had sensitivity to flashing lights as well as lights in general, I had to take the exam in a classroom that was almost completely dark, with my case manager as a proctor (who later told me they were worried about falling asleep while I took my exam). I wound up failing the exam on the second try as well, but only by two questions. Since I passed my algebra 2 SOL (using the same projector accommodations, and still without a calculator), and I only needed to pass two math SOLs to graduate, we decided not to worry about geometry anymore.

When I moved to a different high school junior year, I got the opportunity to finally use a calculator on my SOLs. I was recommended the myScript calculator app, which would be enabled in guided access mode so I couldn’t use the Internet or any other apps. This was extremely helpful, and I managed to do very well on my chemistry SOL because of it. I remember being very excited about this calculator, to which my guidance counselor asked if I wanted to try my geometry SOL again, and I said that I’d really rather not.

I graduated with an advanced diploma from Virginia public schools in 2015, meaning I had passed at least two English exams, two math exams, two science exams, two history exams, and another exam in one of those subjects. Since I have graduated, the E-Bot Pro, my favorite CCTV, has been approved for use with the SOL. Students can also apply for accommodations to use portable CCTVs such as the SmartLux or other video magnifiers on the exam. As I like to say, everyone has the right to see the same things as everyone else, and that applies to testing as well. I hope my experiences with the SOL can help other students with low vision taking standardized tests, and that they may be able to do better than I did.

If you have any specific questions about my SOL accommodations, feel free to comment below, as comments go directly to my email. I will do my best to respond.



How Do People With Low Vision…Take Gym?

It should be no surprise, but I am not very good at sports, and if you throw a ball at me, there’s a very high chance I won’t catch it, or alternatively I will catch it with my face. Because of this, I needed accommodations in my gym classes, or took adaptive PE. Here is how I got through gym and health in the public schools I attended.

Elementary school

My first gym teacher was awesome about creating activities every student could participate in, and I never had to worry about being left out or being criticized for not being able to see. Our school received a new teacher my fifth grade year, and they used a curriculum that had a heavy emphasis on team sports. Instead of ask for accommodations, I just would strike out first so I could sit out for the rest of class. On the last day of fifth grade, I was hit directly in the eye with a volleyball, and the incident caused my family and I to rethink how I would take gym when I got to middle school.

Sixth grade

I had eye surgery that October, and needed to be exempt from gym before and for months after my eye surgery. Because of this, it wasn’t practical for me to take gym. Originally, the principal suggested that I take the health course with my class, and when they were in the gym, I could come to the main office of the school and file papers. My parents thought this was a terrible idea, especially because I have a print disability and can’t see to file. After I completed a county-mandated unit in the health class about gangs, I switched into elective classes. Instead of having two elective classes one day and gym the next day, I had two different elective classes each day- in my case, they were band, art, drama, and Latin.  No kids ever noticed that I didn’t take gym.

Seventh grade

Over the summer, my school installed what they called a fitness lab, which had exercise equipment. Students would spend three class periods there, three class periods in the gym, and three class periods in health. While I would often sit out in gym, I was able to participate in the other sections very easily. Something that helped tremendously was that our class was extremely small, with only about fifteen students (normal classes had thirty), and I had friends in the class.

Eighth grade

My teacher had to take a leave during the school year, so we had lots of different substitutes, most who weren’t familiar with vision loss. I also got prisms in my glasses, and moving quickly would give me vertigo. I had to sit out constantly, and because of this, I stopped changing clothes for PE, with my logic being that if I wasn’t going to do anything, why should I change clothes? Because of this logic, I received a D in PE, something my parents weren’t very happy about, but we didn’t fight the grade because it wouldn’t carry over to high school.

Ninth grade

An adjacent school district had a virtual physical education class that they offered in the summer months. Students would learn about the history of sports, health, and keep a fitness log. We had to fight for permission for me to take this class, but it was ultimately granted, and now other students are able to take it. This was also my first of what would be many virtual classes!

Tenth grade

I couldn’t take virtual PE again, or PE in the classroom, because it tied in with Driver’s Ed, a class that I definitely couldn’t be accommodated for. While doing research, my mom discovered there was an adaptive PE program in our school district. I previously was not referred because I briefly didn’t have an IEP in middle school, and my teacher didn’t believe that I qualified for adaptive PE without an IEP. I got a referral and then met with the adaptive PE instructor once or twice a week for a semester and would do exercises. I took the health component of the class through the Independent Study program at Brigham Young University (HLTH 042), a self paced online class. I only needed two PE/health credits in high school, and my college does not require a physical education class- though another friend with low vision who did need a physical education credit took rowing.

Someone asked me if I felt left out because I didn’t take PE like everyone else, and my answer is definitely not. I am still nervous about being around people playing sports today, and I have a feeling I would have many more stories about broken glasses had I taken PE.