This blog is an exploration of how thinking about accommodations may be different as the accountability movement moves to computer-based testing. As state tests become more computer-based, this will likely move instruction to be more computer-based as well. Thinking about accommodations for students with disabilities is changing!

There are several entries in this site that address not only accommodations but also universal design for learning and assessment. Universal design is a critical consideration because until now, UD has been something done "up front" and accommodations have been applied "on the back end." But now, technology environments allow what we've thought as accommodations to be built in. What does this mean for how we define accommodations?

Please feel free to comment on this site!

Note: This blog is a personal blog and does not reflect the opinions of any organization whose materials appear on this blog.

The Issue: Accommodations in the Age of Computer-based Assessment

This new era of computer-based assessment brings with it opportunities to address issues for all students in ways that testing has not previously been able to. For example, some elements of the way the test is presented can be more dynamic than in a paper-and-pencil test. Consider these examples:

  1. A student with a disability may need a large-print version of a paper test, but with a computer-based test, this adjustment may simply be asking the test to display a larger font size.
  2. For a student who needs the test read aloud, the computer based test may have a built in screen reading program.
  3. A student who requires a sign language interpreter may be able to access sign language on a computer based assessment through an avatar who is able to sign the test for the student
  4. Screen contrast colors may be able to be set by the student
  5. A student may be able to access calming music or white noise through the testing platform

If these are features of the test, do they become aspects of universal design because they were developed at the front of the testing process? Are accommodations limited only to those elements that must be considered AFTER the test is developed?

I think the answer is no.

Accommodations are the supports a student needs to access the test. In all of the examples above, I believe an educator still has a responsibility to ensure that the student receives the accommodations that he or she needs.

It is important to have these components built-in to the test. Having a read aloud accommodation delivered via synthesized text may ensure that there is consistency in how this accommodations is administered from student to student. This is something we worry about--we worry that teachers may inadvertently prompt a student with a tone of voice or a certain emphasis on a word. Computerized delivery of this accommodation can standardize the experience of the accommodation. But, it does not change the fact that it is an accommodation.

Furthermore, as is explained in other sections of this website, the accommodation remains a legal right of a student with a disability. Furthermore, it may be that a student with a disability still needs an accommodation beyond what is built into a computer platform. For example, a student with a visual impairment may still require magnification equipment beyond what is available on the test.

What universal design is NOT

Universal design can do a lot to improve access to instruction or an assessment for a student, but it has its limitations. Universal design is not:

1. Individualized instruction
2. A replacement for a needed accommodation
3. A support that is required by law for a person with a disability who needs it

Universal design for learning and assessment is a good start, but students may still need accommodations.

Bye-bye, Paper and Pencil Tests!

Hello, computer-based assessment!

The current wave of education reform has states working together to develop common standards and assessments. The common standards, known as the Common Core Standards, have been adopted by most states already and are under consideration for adoption in almost all of the rest of the states.

There have been several major grant competitions tied to the idea of working in collaboration with other states and to developing computer-based assessments aligned to Common Core Standards. Two consortia have been funded to tackle the task of designing and implementing these new assessments:


The SBAC will use grant funds to create adaptive online exams that will provide accurate assessment information to teachers and others on the progress of all students, including those with disabilities, English language learners and low- and high-performing students. The system will include:

  • summative exams offered twice each school year;

  • optional formative, or benchmark exams; and

  • a variety of tools, processes and practices for teachers to use in planning and implementing informal, ongoing assessment.

  • Administrators can use student test scores to improve educator accountability and to help identify professional development needs of teachers and principals.


The goal of PARCC is to create an assessment system that will ensure students graduate college and career ready from high school. The proposed assessment system will be computer-based and will measure student progress at key times during the school year, rather than on one test at the end, to allow for instructional adjustment and extra support to students who need it. To ensure college and career alignment, higher education systems and institutions in all PARCC states, nearly 200 in total, have signed up to help develop the new high school tests. The goal will be for those institutions, and the nearly 1,000 campuses they represent, to honor the results of the new assessments as an indicator of students' readiness to take first year credit-bearing courses.

As is evident from these descriptions, both consortia will be developing online assessments. This represents a significant change from the current system of educational assessments.

Universal Design for Assessment

These days, instruction and assessment go hand-in-hand. So, when state departments of education collaborate with test vendors to produce accountability assessments, they do so with principles of universal design for assessment in mind. This way, educators can be assured that tests are accessible to the greatest number of kids. This has some benefits:

1. Fewer kids may need fewer accommodations. Although it is important to have accommodations when kids need them, there are potential pitfalls to using accommodations on a test. For example, what if the kid doesn't want to use the accommodation? What if the school forgets? Even under the best of circumstances, the logistics of providing accommodations on testing day can be tricky.

2. Fewer kids may need to take an alternate assessment. Alternate assessments should be used only for those kids who really need them. Since the accountability movement started, alternate assessments have probably been used too much. The federal government has told states that they can only include a small number of kids taking an alternate assessment as proficient for accountability purposes(1% of the total number of kids). When a kid has a significant cognitive disability and needs an alternate assessment, it's important for the student to have it available. But, alternate assessments should not be overused.

3. All kids benefit from universal design. Universally designed tests are better tests overall because they were built from the ground up by thinking about what the test is trying to measure and making sure that the item development and the overall look and feel of the test is as accessible as possible.

According to the National Center on Educational Outcomes, some key elements of universal design of assessment include the following:

  1. Inclusive assessment population
  2. Precisely defined constructs
  3. Accessible, non-biased items
  4. Amenable to accommodations
  5. Simple, clear, and intuitive instructions and procedures
  6. Maximum readability and comprehensibility
  7. Maximum legibility

Goals of accommodations

For both instruction and assessment, the primary goal of accommodations is to provide access to grade-level content for the student. In instruction, accommodations allow the student to participate fully in instruction. For an assessment, accommodations make sure that the student is able to show what he or she knows and can do. Accommodations make sure that the student's test score is valid--that the score is an accurate measure of what the student can do, not a measure of some aspect of the student's disability.

It is important to document a student's use of accommodations. In Minnesota, the MCA tests are not timed, so a student would not need an accommodation of extra time on an MCA test. But, if a student needs extra time to take classroom assessments, it is important for the student to have that accommodation documented on their IEP or 504 plan. This documentation is important for transition purposes. When the student takes a college entrance exam, such as the ACT, for example, he or she may not be able to have extra time if the accommodation has not been previously documented. When the student goes to college, he or she may need extra time, and again, it will be easier to substantiate this need if it has been previously documented.

There may be other aspects of new technologies that can be built-in to a student's learning in an online environment, such as large print, additional white space, color contrast, and even a read aloud or sign interpreting avatar. Because these features are built-in, they may be considered universally designed components. Yet, this does not diminish the student's need to use them, and they still must be documented on an IEP or 504 plan. In addition to transition planning, it is important to ensure that the student gets these accommodations every time they need them.

Finally, accommodations are a legal right of students. Providing accommodations is meeting the letter of the law--the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Educational Improvement Act, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

What kinds of accommodations do students with learning disabilities need?

I'm not sure what I think about the synthesized speech here, but I do think this video provides some good examples of what kinds of accommodations a student with a learning disability might need in a classroom. However, it's important to note that the educators in this video are talking about traditional kinds of classroom assignments, not so much technology-enhanced learning. The more we teach and learn with the internet, the more we'll have educators sharing their tips and techniques for providing accommodations in these settings, too.

Video: Getting accommodations at a college or university

I've included this video here because this shows an example of a student advocating for herself for accommodations in a postsecondary setting. It is important for students to know how to advocate for themselves, and in order to do this effectively, they must have been familiar with using accommodations in K-12 settings.

Instructional Accommodations

Most educators think of accommodations when it comes to taking a test. They want to make sure that students can show what they know and can do on the test. Testing accommodations are important, but in fact, it is also important to make sure that students are using accommodations regularly in the classroom.

In fact, for many students, the process of being diagnosed with a learning disability will involve the Response to Intervention model (RTI). This model can vary depending on how it is implemented, but the basic idea here is that all students should receive a certain level of intervention in the classroom. This is usually some degree of individualized attention and differentiated instruction. When a student still is not performing well in the classroom, the student would receive some additional interventions that are not available to all students, but to that group of students who need them. This might be a pull out reading group, for example. Finally, if the student is still struggling, then a school may want to assess the student for special education services and if the student qualifies, he or she will get another level of support. But, throughout all of this, teachers and parents may be providing some level of accommodation to the student. In fact, the law says that students do not need to have an IEP to receive accommodations, but that teachers must provide them if a disability is suspected or perceived.

Accommodations for Assessment

Here's some information from the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) about accommodations:

Assessment accommodations are changes in testing materials or procedures that enable students to participate in assessments in a way that assesses abilities rather than disabilities. Without accommodations, the assessment may not accurately measure the student's knowledge and skills.

Assessment accommodations are generally grouped into the following categories:

Presentation (e.g., repeat directions, read aloud, large print, braille, etc.)
Equipment and material (e.g., calculator, amplification equipment, manipulatives, etc.)
Response (e.g., mark answers in book, scribe records response, point, etc.)
Setting (e.g., study carrel, student's home, separate room, etc.)
Timing/Scheduling (e.g., extended time, frequent breaks, etc.)

Some test changes affect item or test validity. These test changes are often called modifications, or non-standard accommodations.