Accommodations for Computer-based Testing

By | NESCA Notes 2019

By: Sophie Bellenis, OTD, OTR/L
Occupational Therapist; Community-based Skills Coach

As a school-based occupational therapist, I found myself beginning each academic year by focusing on what my students needed to learn, the skills they needed to develop, and how I could best use my time to help them be successful in the classroom. Despite it being September, every year this inevitably led me to consider standardized testing – one of the many academic themes of springtime.

My third graders not only needed to know the foundational mathematics skills being assessed, but how to navigate the computer screen in front of them. They needed to practice the fine motor precision to move a mouse and click on small boxes or multiple-choice bubbles. My sixth graders not only needed to understand how to plot points on the x and y axes, but they needed to have the visual perceptual skills to plot these points on a computer screen that scrolls up and down.

This demand for computer literacy skills within testing was noted as early as 2003, when Thompson et. al noted the inherent disadvantage for students who lack access to computers. However, as we continue to move further and further into the digital age, it is clear that computer-based testing has become our nation’s go-to method for assessing its students’ grasp of academic content and subject mastery. Computer-based testing allows for more efficient administration, quicker result times, built-in accommodations, and other positive benefits that make commitment to this practice worthwhile. For many students, computer-based testing is hugely preferred, and the option to type an essay is far less daunting than writing pages and pages by hand.

However, the National Center on Educational Outcomes claims that, “Despite the fairly dramatic increase in attention to CBT (computer-based testing), accessibility challenges continue to have the potential to reduce the validity of the assessment results and to exclude some groups of students from assessment participation” (Thurlow, Lazarus, Albus, & Hodgson, 2010).

So, what happens when this manner of assessment is more difficult for our students with disabilities? How can we help? What can we do?

As is often noted by test creators and administrators, most computer-based tests have relatively comprehensive built-in accommodations. Options such as enlarged font, speech-to-text, and line masking are often built into the platform. Despite this, computer-based accommodations may not be enough. When it comes to being truly accessible, the assessment of skill areas, individualized accommodation, and significant practice of testing systems are all necessary to arrive at an accurate assessment of academic skills.

Consider Charles, a fourth-grade student who has been receiving occupational therapy for decreased fine motor precision, visual perception, and low visual and fine motor endurance. He has difficulty with visual memory and gets easily overwhelmed by visual clutter. As a student in the general education setting, it is initially assumed that Charles will take his standardized tests in the computer format. At his team meeting, Charles’ mother raises her concern that he will fatigue quickly due to the visual demands of staring at a computer screen for the testing period. The team offers to provide Charles with a paper-based version of the test so he can avoid having to look at a computer screen. But Charles has decreased fine motor precision and endurance! How do we accommodate his needs?

This one case displays the importance of considering the whole child, trialing different options, and working collaboratively. Charles could potentially be allowed to take the assessment on the computer with access to a paper copy. He could use a scribe to help him type or write while he takes a computer or paper version. Maybe Charles feels confident using the computer-based test and his mother’s concerns about visual fatigue were unwarranted. Realistically, the team does not know what is best for Charles until they try a few distinct options and get his input.

Computer-based testing tools are here to stay, and fortunately our children are becoming more and more comfortable with digital methods. As we continue to make this transition, it is important to maintain the commitment to be individualized. Each student has different needs, and I urge teams, related service providers, educators, and parents to consider these needs early in the school year and early in the student’s academic career.


Thompson, S., Thurlow, M., & Moore, M. (2003). Using computer-based tests with students with disabilities (Policy Directions No. 15). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes. Retrieved [9/09/2019], from the World Wide Web: https://nceo.info/Resources/publications/OnlinePubs/Policy15.htm

Thurlow, M., Lazarus, S. S., Albus, D., & Hodgson, J. (2010). Computer-based testing: Practices and considerations (Synthesis Report 78). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes.


About the Author:

Dr. Sophie Bellenis is a Licensed Occupational Therapist in Massachusetts, specializing in pediatrics and occupational therapy in the developing world. Dr. Bellenis joined NESCA in the fall of 2017 to offer community-based skills coaching services as well as social skills coaching as part of NESCA’s transition team. Dr. Bellenis graduated from the MGH Institute of Health Professions with a Doctorate in Occupational Therapy, with a focus on pediatrics and international program evaluation. She is a member of the American Occupational Therapy Association, as well as the World Federation of Occupational Therapists. In addition to her work at NESCA, Dr. Bellenis works as a school-based occupational therapist for the city of Salem Public Schools and believes that individual sensory needs, and visual skills must be taken into account to create comprehensive educational programming.
To book an appointment or to learn more about NESCA’s Occupational Therapy Services, please fill out our online Intake Form, email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.


Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.


Back to School 101: How to Support your Child

By | NESCA Notes 2019

By: Reva Tankle, Ph.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist


When should I start transitioning back to the “school routine?”

The summer break should be a time for kids to have fun playing with their friends and family and enjoying new adventures and experiences. As the new school year looms, however, parents start to think about how to transition from the flexible downtime of summer to the more structured and rigid schedule of the school year. As such, they often wonder when to start the process of getting back to the school routine. Of course, it will be different for each child but, for most children, a slow transition is the best plan. Things to consider are:

  • Probably the most important routine to get back into is the bedtime and morning schedule. Parents should consider a slow transition starting 1–2 weeks before the first day of school. Move the bedtime by 10–15 minutes earlier every few days; inching closer to the school night bedtime. By the time it is the night before the 1st day of school, your child should be back to their regular bedtime. After allowing for an adequate number of hours of sleep, parents might consider waking their child up earlier in the morning, again, inching closer to the wake-up time on school days.
  • During the summer months, some children’s access to screen time might increase. Parents should consider reducing screen time during the day and especially in the evening; closer to their family’s rules for access to screens during the school year. Since many children have summertime reading to do, this might be a good time to get your kids off the screens and focused on completing their summer reading.
  • Regardless of your best intentions to transition smoothly to the school year routine, the beginning of school can be challenging for many children. Giving children, especially younger children, adequate time after school for play and ensuring the right amount of sleep will help children make the transition from summer to school.

What can I do to help this year’s teachers, specialists and therapists get to know my child as well as what’s in their IEP or 504 Plan?

If you child is in elementary school, your child will likely have one or at most two new teachers. It is a good idea to make sure the teachers are prepared to meet your child’s educational needs from the first day of school. But it is also important to recognize that it will take time for the teacher to get to know your child, and you want to make sure that you don’t overload the teachers with more information than they can handle. They will read the IEP, but that can be very overwhelming. To help them get started, you can send an email on the teachers’ first day back at school. Keep it short. Write a few sentences describing your child’s strengths and weaknesses. And then write the 2 or 3 things in the classroom that you think will be most important for your child to be successful in the upcoming year. I can’t stress enough how important it is to be short and to the point in this note. If you keep it focused on the most important information, it is more likely that the teachers will remember what you have shared.

If your child is in middle or high school, you could use a similar approach and write a short note about your child. You may choose to send it to all their content teachers or specifically to their Special Education teacher/liaison.

Finally, if your child is on a 504 Plan, it is definitely worthwhile to send a note to all your child’s teachers that informs them of the 504 Plan, listing the accommodations that are in your child’s 504 Plan. If, however, it is a very long list, you might consider writing the most important accommodations and request that they refer to the official 504 Plan for the comprehensive list. If you have a scanned copy, you could attach it to the email and make it easier for them to have access to it.

My child is anxious – how can I help my child feel more at ease?

Many children feel anxious at the start of a school year. They worry about having a new teacher and being with new classmates. To ease your child’s worries about the first day of school, here are some suggestions:

  • Often teachers start working in the school a few days before the students arrive. Call the teacher and arrange for your child to visit the classroom and have a brief 1:1 meet and greet with the child. If the classroom is set up, the teacher might be able to show your child where their desk will be. Consider taking pictures of the room, desk, locker/cubby and other locations in the school where your child may frequent throughout the school day. As the first day approaches, you can remind your child about how nice the teacher was and possibly, where their desk is, reviewing the photos, if taken. Taking away some of the “unknowns” should reduce your child’s anxiety.
  • Find out from other parents which children from last years’ class are in your child’s new class. Arrange playdates toward the end of summer so you child has some familiar faces to look for.
  • Make sure your child has a “go-to” person in the school with whom they feel comfortable. If they had a counselor the prior year, make sure that person is available to them and remind your child they can go see them if needed.
  • Most importantly, be positive and optimistic about the upcoming year. If you are calm and expect the best, your child will pick up on that and approach the new year with a positive attitude.

New School?

If your child is moving to a new school, many of the suggestions listed above will be helpful in your child’s transition to that school. Most importantly, the opportunity to tour the school and meet teachers should ease their concerns. If they are a middle or high school student, it might be helpful for them to know where their locker is and to “practice” going to their different classrooms. Again, revisit pictures, if  taken during the school visit/meet and greet. The more familiar they are with the environment, the better!

My child doesn’t have an IEP or 504, but I have concerns. What do I do?

If, as the school year begins, you have concerns from the previous year, you should be prepared to act quickly to ensure that your child doesn’t fall further behind. Within the first few days of school, you should send your child’s primary teacher a brief note that outlines your concerns. For example, you might write: “My son didn’t meet the end of the year benchmark in reading last year. I am concerned about his reading development. I would like more information from you about his reading level after you do your beginning of the year benchmark assessment.” It will be important for you to follow up with the teacher within 3–4 weeks and get the information you requested. If you remain concerned because of academic, behavioral or emotional issues you are seeing at home, you should not hesitate to request a Special Education evaluation for your child. Make your request in writing to either the Special Education coordinator at your school or the main Special Education office (find out from your school where to send it or, to be sure, send it to both).

It is critical that you don’t let too much time go by at the beginning of the year to make your request for an evaluation. The school is obligated to evaluate at your request so, don’t be dissuaded from the evaluation if you have concerns about your child’s development and their ability to make progress in school.

I wish you and your family a positive and happy return to school this year!



Reva Tankle, Ph.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist

Combining her experience and training in both pediatric neuropsychology and educational advocacy, Dr. Reva Tankle has particular expertise in working with families who are navigating the IEP process. Having participated in numerous team meetings over the years, Dr. Tankle is especially knowledgeable about the many ways that schools can support and accommodate students with special learning needs, information that she clearly communicates in her evaluation reports and in team meetings, if needed. She also has a great deal of experience in articulating the reasons that a student may need a program outside of the public school.

Dr. Tankle evaluates students with ADHD, learning disabilities, high functioning autism spectrum disorders, and neurological conditions, as well as children with complex profiles that are not easily captured by a single diagnostic category.


To schedule an appointment with Dr. Reva Tankle in Plainville, MA, or any of our expert neuropsychologists, please complete our online intake form


Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton and Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.


Addressing Anxiety through the IEP Process

By | NESCA Notes 2019

By: Erin Gibbons, Ph.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist, NESCA

Anxiety disorders are becoming more and more common among children and adolescents. Recent data from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reported that 31.9% of adolescents between 13-19 have an identified anxiety disorder. Although fewer statistics are available, it is clear that students who have a developmental, learning, or attention disorder are at high risk for developing clinically significant anxiety in light of their struggles with academics, learning, and/or social development. Given the rising numbers of affected children and adolescents, it has become increasingly important that a student’s emotional health is addressed both at home through private counseling, as well as through the provision of school-based services. When students experience a high level of unmitigated anxiety throughout the day, they are less able to learn and meet their potential.

When parents are seeking services for anxiety through their school system, there are different levels of support. First, teachers can provide classroom supports and address emotional health with all students, whether or not they have an identified anxiety disorder. Some examples of useful classroom strategies include:

  • Create predictable routines and clear expectations.
  • Provide warnings about upcoming transitions.
  • Have a “cool down space” available in the classroom or another room in the school.
  • Incorporate movement into lessons throughout the day.

There are also programs designed to address emotional regulation that can be used throughout the school or district. For example:

If these supports are not sufficient to meet a student’s needs, then it is necessary to develop goals through the IEP process. In order to make needed progress, it is important that the goals and benchmarks in the IEP are specific. For example, a benchmark might state: “Johnny will show better emotional regulation in stressful situations.” A more specific benchmark might state: “When Johnny starts to shut down or refuse to participate during a math class, he will identify his current emotion(s) in 4 out of 5 opportunities.”

When parents seek supports for their child’s anxiety through the IEP, they should consider whether their child needs accommodations, specialized instruction or both.

Examples of accommodations for anxiety include:

  • Extra time in testing situations.
  • Opportunities to take tests in a quiet setting.
  • Access to breaks as needed.
  • Access to the school counselor as needed.
  • Student does not need to sign out of class to use the bathroom.
  • Student is prompted to take breaks when showing signs of distress.
  • Student has modified homework.
  • Teacher will check in with student before independent work blocks.
  • Specialized instruction can be provided in the classroom (push-in) or in a different setting (pull-out).

Push-in services might include:

  • Provision of an instructional aide to support emotion identification and regulation.
  • The school counselor/psychologist works with the entire class once or twice a month to discuss emotional health.

Pull-out services might include:

  • Regular sessions with the school counselor/psychologist.
  • Social skills groups.

Consultation services are also important, especially if a student participates in private therapy outside of school. Parents should consider giving permission for the private therapist to speak with the school counselor to discuss common treatment goals and ways in which the student’s coping skills can be supported and reinforced in school.

About the Author:

GibbonsErin Gibbons, Ph.D. is a pediatric neuropsychologist with expertise in neurodevelopmental and neuropsychological assessment of infants, children, and adolescents presenting with developmental disabilities including autism spectrum disorders, Down syndrome, intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities, and attention deficit disorders. She has a particular interest in assessing students with complex medical histories and/or neurological impairments, including those who are cognitively delayed, nonverbal, or physically disabled. Dr. Gibbons joined NESCA in 2011 after completing a two-year post-doctoral fellowship in the Developmental Medicine Center at Boston Children’s Hospital. She particularly enjoys working with young children, especially those who are transitioning from Early Intervention into preschool. Having been trained in administration of the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS), Dr. Gibbons has experience diagnosing autism spectrum disorders in children aged 12 months and above.

Dr. Gibbons recently began serving clients in NESCA’s newest location in Plainville/Foxborough, MA. She is thrilled to bring her expertise in evaluating and supporting children with a wide range of abilities to this area of the state.


To book an evaluation with Dr. Gibbons or one of our many other expert neuropsychologists and transition specialists, complete NESCA’s online intake form.



Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.


Transition Planning: Let’s Talk about Graduation Dates for Students on IEPs

By | NESCA Notes 2018


By: Kelley Challen, Ed.M., CAS
Director of Transition Services; Transition Specialist

On March 26, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) sent out an important administrative advisory regarding transition services and graduating with a high school diploma (Administrative Advisory SPED 2018-2: Secondary Transition Services and Graduation with a High School Diploma). This much-needed advisory clarifies when and how students with IEP’s should be issued a high school diploma and also touches on best practices for planning both student graduation and appropriate secondary transition services.

As a transition specialist who is often contracted by schools and families, it is not uncommon to be asked to help determine whether a student is ready to graduate. The challenge in answering this particular question is that there is no universal set of skills or level of knowledge that deems a student on an IEP “ready” to graduate. In fact, students on IEP’s, just as with mainstream students, graduate all the time without being ready for many adult activities (e.g. apartment hunting, changing jobs, applying for a bank loan, comparing health insurance plans).

The truth is, there are a number of skills that we need for “adulting,” but do not need in order to graduate with a high school diploma. As this important advisory points out, the special education process is not simply about completing local graduation requirements. It is also about transition planning and services that uniquely equip a student for reaching their goals after leaving public education. Therefore, we need to rethink the question, “Is my child/student ready to graduate?” And instead, the critical question to ask when a student approaches the end of 12th grade is, “Has the child/student received a free and appropriate public education (FAPE)?”

As I discussed in a previous blog (Transition Planning: The Missing Link Between Special Education and Successful Adulthood), FAPE as guaranteed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 (IDEA 2004) includes transition planning and services. Under IDEA 2004, a federal law, transition planning must start by the time a student turns 16. Here in Massachusetts, we have even stronger regulations, and secondary transition services may begin “no later than the age of 14.” This means that the IEP has to be carefully constructed to help students build skills “in a stepwise and cumulative manner” toward completing their high school program while also making progress toward their desired post-secondary learning, working, and independent living activities including community engagement.

The foundation for this process is an individualized and coordinated transition assessment process that carefully evaluates a student’s needs, strengths, preferences, and interests beginning before the age of 14. Just as with all IEP goals and services, assessment informs the team’s discussion and decision-making; it helps the team to know how to plan for the long-term, prioritize for the coming school year, and to track progress.

In each annual meeting for a transition-aged student, the IEP team needs to explicitly discuss whether the student is progressing towards their measurable postsecondary goals and whether the educational program and related transition services are calibrated in such a way that the student will continue to make progress. Anticipated graduation date (listed on the top of the Transition Planning Form and recorded in the Additional Information section of the IEP) is a critical part of this discussion each year. When a student, parent, teacher, or other team member is uncertain about a student’s ability to complete local requirements and receive appropriate transition services “on time,” this needs to be discussed directly.

If there is confusion or disagreement about the graduation date, additional assessment may be needed to clarify the student’s needs. However, if the team starts the transition planning process when a student is 14, and carefully plans out the instruction, community experiences, and employment related activities necessary for progressing toward the student’s post-high school goals, and closely tracks the student’s progress, then students, parents and educators will rarely need to ask whether the student is “ready to graduate.” Instead, they will know if the student has received FAPE because the student’s IEP has included well-calculated transition services and there will be clear measures of the student’s progress with annual goals and transition-related services indicating whether this particular student requires support beyond the traditional 12 years of education.

I am grateful for the recent administrative advisory from DESE and have found each of their advisories on the topic of transition to be tremendously helpful in supporting a shared understanding of the transition planning process among families, schools, and the professionals supporting them. At NESCA, we have seen great progress in the delivery of individualized transition services across the state of Massachusetts since the Massachusetts Legislature approved the amendment to the Massachusetts special education statute in 2008 to require transition planning services “beginning age 14 or sooner” and DESE put out Technical Assistance Advisory SPED 2009-1: Transition Planning to Begin at Age 14. With the recent advisory, I am certain that we will continue to see more teams embrace the transition planning process early. Students, families, and districts will experience less confusion and distress as a student approaches the end of 12th grade, because there will be a clear plan for exiting or continuing special education based on effective transition planning and a collaborative and communicative team process.

Transition Resources and Advisories from MA Department of Elementary and Secondary Education 
· MA DESE Secondary Transition Page – http://www.doe.mass.edu/sped/secondary-transition/default.html
· Administrative Advisory SPED 2018-2:Secondary Transition Services and Graduation with a High School Diploma – http://www.doe.mass.edu/sped/advisories/2018-2.html
· Technical Assistance Advisory SPED 2017-1: Characteristics of High Quality Secondary Transition Services – http://www.doe.mass.edu/sped/advisories/2017-1ta.pdf
· Technical Assistance Advisory SPED 2016-2: Promoting Student Self-Determination to Improve Student Outcomes – http://www.doe.mass.edu/sped/advisories/2016-2ta.pdf
· Technical Assistance Advisory SPED 2014-4: Transition Assessment in the Secondary Transition Planning Process – http://www.doe.mass.edu/sped/advisories/2014-4ta.html
· Technical Assistance Advisory SPED 2013-1: Postsecondary Goals and Annual IEP Goals in the Transition Planning Process – http://www.doe.mass.edu/sped/advisories/13_1ta.html
· Technical Assistance Advisory SPED 2009-1: Transition Planning to Begin at Age 14 – http://www.doe.mass.edu/sped/advisories/09_1ta.html

While this blog includes some specific content that applies only to families of students in IEPs in Massachusetts, the requirement of transition services for students on IEPs is a federal mandate. For families living in New Hampshire, guidance from the New Hampshire Department of Education can be found athttps://www.education.nh.gov/instruction/special_ed/sec_trans.htmThe NH DOE has additionally helped develop a website with resources for increasing the college and career readiness of NH Students that can be found ahttps://nextsteps-nh.org.


If you are interested in working with a transition specialist at NESCA for consultation, planning, or evaluation, please complete our online intake form: https://nesca-newton.com/intake-form/.


About the Author:

Kelley Challen, EdM, CAS, is NESCA’s Director of Transition Services, overseeing planning,  consultation, evaluation, coaching, case management, training and program development services.  She began facilitating programs for children and adolescents with special needs in 2004. After receiving her Master’s Degree and Certificate of Advanced Study in Risk and Prevention Counseling from Harvard Graduate School of Education, Ms. Challen spent several years at the MGH Aspire Program where she founded an array of social, life and career skill development programs for teens and young adults with Asperger’s Syndrome and related profiles. She also worked at the Northeast Arc as Program Director for the Spotlight Program, a drama-based social pragmatics program, serving youth with a wide range of diagnoses and collaborating with several school districts to design in-house social skills and transition programs. While Ms. Challen has special expertise in supporting students with Autism Spectrum Disorders, she provides support to individuals with a wide range of developmental and learning abilities including students with complex medical needs. She is also co-author of the chapter “Technologies to Support Interventions for Social- Emotional Intelligence, Self-Awareness, Personality Style, and Self-Regulation” for the book Technology Tools for Students with Autism.




Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.