Special Education

Blind Oregon Students Now Take Online Adaptive Tests

By Nirvi Shah — April 03, 2012 3 min read
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For the first time, students who read Braille in Oregon can take the same adaptive tests in reading, math, science, and social science.

Using refreshable Braille displays connected to computers, blind students can take tests that base questions on how the student answered the one before.

“The adaptive piece is what’s really exciting,” said Crystal Greene, a senior program and accountability officer. “We’re able to hone in with much more precision on what kids know and are able to do. We’re getting better information on where all of our kids are.” Adaptive tests have been used in Oregon since 2001, said Kathleen Vanderwall, the state’s manager of test design.

The tests are the first adaptive exams in Braille in the country, said Holly Carter, an assessment policy analyst for the Oregon Department of Education. Hawaii began using similar tests this school year, too, but they don’t involve refreshable Braille displays—each test item is translated into Braille on paper instead. Kentucky and Arizona have offered online assessments for students who read Braille, but they aren’t adaptive tests like Oregon’s.

Adaptive tests use a pool of questions to draw from. “You have no way of knowing ahead of time which items will be presented to which individual student,” Carter said . That was the challenge. The state waded through its pool of 19,000 test items and came up with about 16,000 that would work in Braille. Some with complex flow charts or diagrams wouldn’t work with the refreshable displays, Vanderwall said.

While other students took their adaptive tests online, Braille-reading students had to wade through a traditional exam that took up pages and pages of embossing, said Julie York, the state’s director of interagency educational services.

“It’s definitely cumbersome. A typical page takes multiple pages in Braille,” she said. The tests were more time consuming, and students typically had to be separated from classmates to take them, missing hours of instructional time. Their testing schedule didn’t coincide with their peers, either.

With help from the American Institutes for Research, the state’s test vendor, Oregon researched available technology. The state also tapped the expertise of its own teachers for the visually impaired, Braillists who translate pages, and the Oregon Textbook & Media Center, Carter said.

Students who read Braille now use refreshable Braille displays all the time, not just on the tests.
The displays attach to computers and, based on the text on the screen, pins raise as Braille “text” for students to read, Vanderwall said. The displays Oregon uses are about the width of a keyboard.

If students need to read longer passages of text, they have embossers at their schools that can print pages on demand, said Greene. In the past, teachers would have made requests for classwork to be converted to Braille, and the material could take weeks to arrive.

The state bought the displays and embossers with money from the sale of the Oregon School for the Blind. Now blind students attend their local public school.

So far, 11 of the state’s blind students have taken at least one state exam in the new format. There are about 35 students statewide who read Braille, although some students won’t take the tests this year because they are not in one of the grades tested. So far, the students and their parents are pleased.

“Testing is taking much less time. Students are getting pulled out of class much less,” Greene said. “That was a wonderful side effect.”

Photo: Damanti Burfict, an 8th grader at LaCreole Middle School in Dallas, Ore., demonstrates his refreshable Braille reader, which blind students can now use in class and to take state exams. Courtesy of Oregon Department of Education

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A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.