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Standardized Tests and One Student on the Spectrum

Becky Bogoslavsky, MA


The line graph made my heart seize in my chest and my thoughts gallop.

I vividly recall my panic the day my autistic daughter brought that particular batch of standardized test scores home from school. Her scores on one section had dropped dramatically — they were more than 20 points lower than at any other time in her life.

“It’s just a number on a piece of paper!” was my daughter’s dismissive attitude in general toward test scores. How much anxiety do we, as a society, tie to those scores, though!

I had to assume she messed up filling in bubbles on the test, because the next year's score rebounded. I'll never know for certain what happened that year.

Then there was the junior high test Abby studied for and made a whopping 10 percent. (I'd love to say studying always helped her grades, but that wasn't the case.) She didn’t get the questions wrong — she just didn’t answer them. When her father and I got hold of the test and quizzed her aloud on the material, she knew it all. She couldn’t tell us why she didn’t answer the questions. Again, I have no idea where her mind was during that particular test.  

With that as our history, the ACT loomed large in high school as an intimidatingly high and discouraging hurdle.

The ACT offers accommodations, which must be requested through the high school. These accommodations serve some students well, but here is what I know about my daughter: give her three hours on a test, she will finish in 10 minutes and then doodle for the rest of the test period. A separate room and more time didn't seem like what Abby needed. Therefore, we didn't request accommodations, but I devised a strategy based on her particular needs.

Abby's main issue is anxiety.

That junior high test she didn’t do well on? She was incredibly keyed up at the time, which I suspect had something to do with her dismal score. I also understood that more studying wouldn't necessarily promise a better score, especially if it added pressure. Therefore, my plan had to do with keeping the pressure low, making her surroundings familiar, and getting her in and out as quickly as possible.

She didn't take an ACT prep course and we didn't do practice rounds. Her school spent time preparing for the PSAT, and that seemed sufficient. As the time for ACT registration approached, I told Abby I wanted her to take it once — only once — and we would use whatever score she made. She was happy with that.

I registered Abby and her brother for the same test date so they would be there together. I knew having a familiar face in the room would help her relax. I also registered her for a date at her high school, with her teachers as proctors. That again helped alleviate her anxiety. In fact, test day was more celebratory than stressful. Abby was happy to be with her brother, in her own school. I knew that gave her the best chance for success.

The day her ACT score became available, my stomach was doing back-flips, What if she had messed up the bubbles on the score sheet again? What if she'd zoned out and doodled the whole test time? I was terrified that, after promising she only had to take the test once, we'd need to make her go back and do it again.

Luckily, the scores came in and she did well enough to qualify for admission at some of our area colleges. It wouldn’t get her a scholarship, but we had never counted on that.

As long as her score could get her into college, I wasn't overly concerned with it. We knew she might score low and need remediation classes, but many colleges now pair those classes with credit-bearing courses. It amounts to extra support and time to adjust. At the University of Central Arkansas, where I teach, the pass rate for college algebra is higher for those in remediation than for those in the regular classes. Professors, not TAs, teach the remediated sections and they get to know their students. I wasn't afraid of remediation for Abby — in fact, I wanted it.

Two years later my daughter is a successful student at a local community college.

I teach at another school nearby, but to help Abby build independence, we decided she should not attend my university. She did indeed require remediated classes, and made “A” grades in all of them. She transitioned smoothly and enjoys her college experience. 

The ACT test did not dampen her spirits or overshadow the last phase of high school as I think it does for a lot of students. I am not necessarily advising other parents of students on the spectrum to take the approach we did — but I will tell you the best strategy is always to know your child, and work from there. During this time when our communities and schools are only just beginning to fully appreciate all our autistic students are capable of, we're the ones best equipped to put them in the position to fulfill their potential.

Read more from Becky: Is Your Student on the Spectrum Ready for College?
Becky Bogoslavsky, MA, heads up the University of Central Arkansas’s Autism Advocacy Program, which offers academic and social support to UCA students on the spectrum, and she teaches writing, literacy, and academic success classes. Becky has two college-aged children — one on the spectrum — and a husband who is the calm one in the family.

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