by: Steven Noble & Jan McSorley
Tests have long been part of the education process. While there are many ways to assess a student’s understanding and mastery of a subject, having children respond to a series of well-written test questions has been a staple of school life for as long as any of us can remember. Test results not only provide students and parents with an important indicator of progress toward learning goals; they also provide teachers and school administrators with a vital measurement of how well students are responding to the instruction they receive on a daily basis.
When it comes to high-stakes assessments, parents and teachers must work closely together to set up all students for success. This is especially true for children with learning or perceptual disorders. Difficulty with information processing can often lead to test anxiety, which may impair information processing in an escalating cycle. Appropriate accommodations and testing supports provide students with the scaffolding they need to better process information so that the test results more accurately reflect their true learning gains. It is critical to thoroughly consider accommodations and supports well before the year end testing cycle and ensure that these are included in students’ IEPs and 504 Plans.
While “test taking” has a long history in schools, taking tests on a computer is a relatively new phenomenon in K-12 education. At the close of last century, many students may have been using various types of learning software which included things like embedded quizzes and end-of-chapter tests, but using paper-and-pencil tests to record answers or marking scantron cards was still typical. Today, taking tests on a computer has become commonplace, and computer-based end-of-course and state summative assessments are quickly becoming the norm, with more states making the switch from paper tests to online versions every year.
Though some students may have initial reservations about transitioning from the familiar paper-based tests, computer-based assessments are able to provide many important benefits for students with disabilities, which can have a huge impact on the equity of student assessments. Computer-based assessment platforms that are constructed with accessibility and universal design principles, can better provide for individualized accommodations and test supports that are needed by students with disabilities. These supports can be embedded within assessment platforms or supported by third-party assistive technologies (AT).
Next-generation computer-based assessment systems can provide a considerable array of embedded accessibility tools and testing supports. Here are just a few examples of common technology supports that can be found in online testing platforms:
- Highlighting tools that allow students to mark important content in test questions or reading passages
- Digital notepads that allow students to make notes about test questions, reading passages, or other types of testing content like videos, maps or charts
- Line reading tools that help students keep their place while reading text
- Options to eliminate or strikethrough answer choices that are not correct so that students can better focus on the remaining choices when choosing an answer
- A variety of digital calculators that are appropriate for the grade level being assessed
- Dictionary or thesaurus tools that enable students to find definitions or synonyms for all words, or specific words that have been identified in advance
- The ability to mark questions to return to them later in the assessment
- Masking tools that allow students to hide answer options and reveal them one at a time or to mask parts of the screen to focus on specific on-screen content
- Text-to-speech tools that permit the student to listen to computer-generated audio of all content or portions of the content
- Simplified presentation formats that offer single-column layout to improve readability
Having these supports built into the testing system can make a huge difference in supplying student access needs in a flexible manner. Further, accessible computer-based assessments with such built-in tools can provide access for a wider range of student needs and types of disabilities, thereby reducing the number of students required to take exams in separate settings. While some tools may be universally available for any student to use, others must be pre-identified by teachers well before test day.
Some tools are particularly useful for supplying the access needs of students with reading disorders. On-demand text-to-speech or “read aloud” access to reading passages and test questions allows students to self-select the content for which they need reading support, as opposed to requesting a human reader to provide a read-aloud accommodation. Classroom research has shown that students who can access such supports on their own in a discreet manner using earbuds or headphones are much more likely to use the accommodation and reread sections of text as much as they need for comprehension.
However, the most effective accessibility supports and accommodations for assessments are those that closely match supports used by students to access instructional content in the classroom. Disabilities manifest themselves in unique ways from student to student, thereby requiring an individualized approach to best meet the needs of each student. This is the fundamental philosophy behind the IEP and Section 504 Plan, which needs to carefully consider the seamless crossover from day-to-day instruction into assessment settings. Changing or denying access to a student’s everyday classroom access tools on test day can introduce what is called “construct-irrelevant variance” into test measures. Think of a student who needs glasses to read, but then is told that she cannot wear her glasses while taking a test. As a result, she misreads some of the test content and ends up selecting several incorrect answers. As you can imagine, this would result in scores that are not truly reflective of a student’s ability. The same is true for a student with a learning disability. Having to complete assessments without the use of familiar tools and accommodations can impede comprehension, increase test anxiety, and compromise a student’s ability to demonstrate academic proficiency.
In closing, here are a few suggestions as parents, teachers and students begin planning for the spring testing cycle:
Sometimes, states won’t allow certain types of supports if they believe the support will interfere with what is being tested. Be sure to learn about the supports that are allowed by your state. This should be discussed and explained during IEP and 504 meetings, but if not, reach out to personnel at your child’s school and they will be able to help you understand what is available and what the options are for your child.
Become familiar with the embedded accessibility supports available in your testing platform and how they work. Consider which ones best match the scaffolding techniques used by the student in daily instruction and spend time practicing them. Often times, online practice tests can be accessed by parents and students from home, so be sure to take advantage of these resources.
Be sure to thoroughly consider the student’s individual testing needs during IEP and Section 504 meetings and how the testing platform can address them through imbedded tools and supports. Be sure these are all spelled out in the student’s plan and on record well before testing day.
If the student commonly uses third-party assistive technology applications or particular access settings on computers when in an instructional setting, be sure to investigate how well those same tools work when using the online testing platform. If issues are identified, then work with your school AT/IT support personnel to correct the issue.
Steve Noble is an Instructional Designer, Accessibility for Pearson. Steve has over 25 years of experience in making education accessible to students with disabilities. Steve is currently State President for the LDA of Kentucky and a former member of LDA’s National Board of Directors.
Jan McSorley is Vice President, Accessibility for Psychometrics & Testing Services at Pearson. Jan leads a dedicated accessibility team at Pearson. She is a former educator with 25 years of experience in special education – 17 of which were spent working as an assistive technology (AT) specialist.