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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.

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

Universal Design for Learning

Universal Design for Learning relates to accommodations because the more an instructor or curriculum developer can take into account the principles of universal design, the more likely it will be that a student will not need accommodations, or the student will need fewer accommodations.

Universal design came out of architecture, when people realized that there were certain principles that they could apply from the beginning, like having electronic doors or curb cuts. These components were initially built-in to building plans because they were important accessible components for people with disabilities, but it turns out that they are used and appreciated by others as well.

Here's a video on Universal Design for Learning. This video was developed by the Do-IT Center.

It's important to note that universal design is different from accommodations. Many students will still need accommodations even when universal design principles are applied. But, universal design is a great place to start!!

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