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Special Education

Assistive Tech for Testing Merges Into Mainstream

By Michelle R. Davis — March 10, 2014 7 min read
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As students with disabilities in Virginia’s Fauquier County district take online assessments, they have access to a toolbox of technologies that can make it easier to show what they know. An optic mouse can help magnify text; a text-to-speech tool provides a spoken version of exam questions; and various switches and joysticks, for those unable to use a mouse and keyboard, can be merged with the assessment.

But even students who don’t have individualized education programs, or IEPs, have digital learning enhancements at their disposal in Virginia’s online testing world, said Mary Wills, the 11,000-student district’s director of testing. They have access to an electronic yellow highlighter that never runs out of ink, an electronic pencil for note-taking or math calculations, and an eliminator tool that narrows down the answers for multiple-choice questions.

“These tools are for all kids, not just for those with special needs,” Ms. Wills said.

Assistive technologies and accommodations, once seen as primarily for students with disabilities, are now merging into the broader testing world, especially as more states and districts embrace online testing. Computer-based exams provide an opportunity to allow all students to tap into accommodations that could aid comprehension and focus.

“There are all types of interventions that came out to address the needs of students with disabilities, but anyone can benefit from them and should have the opportunity to use those accommodations if they want them,” said Kimberly Hymes, the senior director of policy and advocacy for the Council for Exceptional Children, an Arlington, Va.-based advocacy group for students with disabilities. “Technology allows us to have those types of interventions readily available.”

That philosophy is based on the concept of “universal design for learning,” or UDL, she said. UDL calls for students to be presented with information and content in different ways and for providing multiple options to show understanding. The approach is intended to help all students, not just those with disabilities, Ms. Hymes said.

The Common-Core Effect

Some states, such as Virginia, have been doing online testing for years and have more experience with using assistive technologies and accommodations on assessments for students with disabilities, and for all students. But as the requirements for Common Core State Standards go into place, more districts in many states are going to be confronted with the issue. The two major coalitions developing online tests—the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC—are working to allow assistive devices for students with disabilities who need them and to provide other learning-enhancement tools to all students, said Brandt Redd, the chief technology officer for Smarter Balanced.

For specialized devices intended to help students with disabilities, for example, the coalition has developed a list of certified technologies that can work seamlessly with the online tests, such as certain input devices for students with motor-skills impairments or some text-to-speech readers, he said. Smarter Balanced’s assistive technology certification process requires companies to pay $5,000 to have the coalition certify their devices work with the tests. Companies can also try out their devices with the assessment using Smarter Balanced’s training tests online for free, but that does not provide certification.

Assistive “devices are allowed as long as the student uses it in regular instruction,” Mr. Redd said. “We want to make sure no one is bringing in a device to artificially inflate” achievement.

It’s also important that a student isn’t using a device he or she had no experience with before test day, Mr. Redd said. The goal of the test is to measure academic abilities, not how adept the student is with technology.

Zoom Function

Smarter Balanced is approaching assistive technologies and supports from a three-tiered perspective. Some of those technologies—such as highlighters and zoom functions—will be available to all students. Others will be available to students who have had their uses approved by educators and other designated adults, such as translation tools for English-language learners or an English pop-up glossary. Still others, such as tools for translation into Braille, will be for students with IEPs that require those accommodations.

PARCC is approaching accommodations for its assessment in a similar way, said Jeffrey Nellhaus, the coalition’s director of policy, research, and design. Supports embedded into the tests for all students include a magnifier and the option to change font size or background colors. Text-to-speech tools will be available to all students on tests in selected areas, Mr. Nellhaus said, but will be available for students with visual impairments on all parts of the test.

For math, that will be particularly helpful. “We want to make sure we’re just measuring their ability to do the math, not their ability to read,” he said.

PARCC doesn’t require certification for assistive devices, but will produce a list of devices that work with their test as well as a list of technical guidelines for devices.

However, several advocacy groups have criticized PARCC for its failure to have all accommodations ready for its field testing this spring. In January, the National Federation of the Blind filed a lawsuit against PARCC, saying its upcoming field testing doesn’t provide access for blind students who use Braille, representing a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. PARCC and the group have since settled the suit, with PARCC pledging to have Braille accommodations available for the practice test in spring 2014.

Patti Ralabate, the director of implementation for the Center for Applied Special Technology, or CAST, said her group, based in Wakefield, Mass., and others are watching to make sure supports for all students are provided and are not limited to small groups.

She’s also eager to see whether devices not on certified lists are ultimately permitted.

“There are all kinds of issues around integrating assistive-technology devices with whatever technology is used to give the test,” she said. Ms. Ralabate said it’s important all accessibility measures are working for the field test so that “all populations are taken into account.”

The National Center and State Collaborative, one of two coalitions developing alternative assessments for students with severe cognitive disabilities, is pilot and field testing assessments with a high focus on assistive technologies, said Rachel Quenemoen, the project director. To ensure assistive devices work with assessments, the collaborative borrowed the most commonly-used devices to run compatibility checks and will work to resolve any barriers to the use of assistive devices before operational testing in the spring of 2015, she said.

Even aside from the common core, assistive technologies are blurring the lines between what students with disabilities get versus the rest of the student population.

In the 10,400-student Janesville, Wis., school district, for instance, many of the assistive technologies used are available for all students based on the concepts of universal design for learning, said Kathy White, an assistive-technology specialist for the district.

Word-prediction software, for example, which suggests words visually and aloud as students write, is one of the most commonly used assistive technologies in the district, according to Ms. White. It can help students with disabilities struggling to spell or conceptualize an idea, but it can also help an on-grade-level student writing about a historical period who needs unfamiliar vocabulary, or a kindergartner who wants to use a big word but doesn’t know how to spell it.

Having such technologies available to all students takes away the stigma that can arise when it’s just students with disabilities who use them, Ms. White said.

“I’ve seen a dramatic shift in the way these students look at technology,” she said, referring to students with disabilities. “They used to say they didn’t want to use it because they’d be different. Now we know everyone learns in a different manner.”

Uneven Access

Districts also have to consider expenses. Some costs for assistive devices are down, because the technologies are now built into the assessments—like a text reader for example—or because the technology is getting cheaper. But that’s not the case for everything, said Ms. Hymes.

Of course, the reality is that even as districts embrace assistive technologies and accommodations for more students, that approach doesn’t necessarily carry over to students’ experiences with state tests.

In the 210,000-student Houston school district, officials have taken up the UDL philosophy. Houston opted for laptops instead of tablets for its 1-to-1 computing initiative in part because that choice allows all students, including those with disabilities, to use the same technology, with some add-ons, said Sowmya Kumar, the assistant superintendent for special education. All students can also use Kurzweil software, a text-to-speech tool with built-in study aids, including a dictionary, a thesaurus, and an idea-organizing tool.

But on state tests, the majority of students who don’t have IEPs won’t have access to assistive technologies or accommodations. It’s a practice that Ms. Kumar hopes to see shift in the near future.

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