Just five weeks after a New Milford, N.J., family filed a federal lawsuit, a major standardized-testing consortium tasked with writing exams tied to the Common Core has agreed to speed up its timeline for making Braille practice tests available, according to a settlement reached Monday.
On Jan. 17, the National Federation of the Blind and two New Jersey parents filed suit against the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), alleging that the group was violating the American with Disabilities Act and the 1973 Rehabilitation Act by not making hard-copy and online practice tests in Braille available to blind students. The plaintiffs argued that the lack of practice tests would disadvantage blind students because problems with the Braille tests would not be identified before the actual tests were implemented.
"Blind Americans, and the parents of blind children, cannot and will not tolerate blind students being forced to wait for likely inferior accessibility to the tests that will measure their academic performance, simply because the students happen to live in states that are part of a consortium that does not take its stated commitment to accessibility seriously," Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind, said at the time.
According to Monday's settlement, PARCC "shall work with its vendor" to provide the spring 2014 practice test "as soon as possible in an accessible format for use with assistive technology used by blind students and in hard copy Braille or tactile graphics when the material cannot be accessibly represented in an online format."
The settlement also outlined steps for PARCC's collaboration with the National Federation of the Blind. PARCC agreed to let the federation "quality check" the Braille tests and to "compensate NFB at customary rates for mutually agreed to services." PARCC will set up a meeting between the federation and Pearson Education Services, the company actually designing the tests, to discuss accessibility. In June, PARCC will arrange a testing software demonstration for the federation.
Specifically, the Braille-accessible test will be expected to have tactile graphics so that test takers can "use hard copy Braille and a refreshable Braille Display for those Assessments." The tests must also be compatible with "screen reader software used by blind and visually impaired students."
PARCC is one of two consortia receiving money from the federal government to develop tests aligned to the Common Core State Standards, a set of learning standards that most states have agreed to implement. PARCC received $186 million from the Obama administration through the Race to the Top competition.
The National Federation of the Blind lauded Monday's settlement in a statement. "Blind students are far too often forced to wait for equal access to educational materials, and as a result end up lagging far behind their sighted peers in academics," Maurer said. "This important settlement will address that problem by ensuring that PARCC's assessments and practice tests are accessible to blind students at the same time that they are deployed to all students."
PARCC spokesman David Connerty-Marin said the group was also pleased, adding that it had always intended to have Braille practice tests ready by this fall -- and will have Braille versions of the full tests ready by spring 2015, as initially planned.
"Our interests are the same as those of the National Federation of the Blind, which is full access for all students, which is why we were able to settle so quickly," Connerty-Marin said. "This is a major undertaking. We're moving through all the pieces as quickly as possible."
He added that "cognitive labs" in Braille, conducted this summer and fall, will take a closer look at how tests in Braille serve blind students by asking them intermittent questions while they take the test.