Special Report
Special Education

Tech Assistance in Testing Poses Practical Issues

By Christina A. Samuels — October 28, 2013 6 min read
Laura Boelens, 15, (in white) and Adam Roberge, 20, (right) use BrailleNote Apex Notetakers in computer class with Kate Crohan, Teacher of the Visually Impaired in the Secondary Program at Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts, USA, on Tues., Oct. 15, 2013. The Apex has wifi capabilities and works as a word processor, web browser, calculator, and email device. Roberge, here, also uses a computer that reads the contents of the screen to him. Boelens is using the Apex to read news articles that Crohan has picked out for her. The Apex device is controlled through the braille keyboard buttons at the top. Emails and other documents are displayed in braille across the bottom row of the device. Crohan's class helps familiarize students with these devices and also general computer literacy.
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On-screen calculators. Magnified print. Software-based text-to-speech readers. Closed captioning and American Sign Language interpretation.

All of those modes of accessing test questions and providing answers will be built into the tests linked to the Common Core State Standards now being implemented by all but four states, in an effort to make sure the tests hew closely to the precepts of “universal design” for learning. The concept of universal design supports customizable, flexible approaches to teaching and testing that can be adjusted based on an individual student’s needs.

But for students with disabilities, many of whom use multiple types of technology in school, tools built into the test are not enough, disability advocates say.

Students must be able to use the equipment they’re accustomed to using every day in the classroom and in their lives outside of school, they argue. In response, the federally financed test consortia creating the general assessments that will be used by most students, including most students with disabilities—the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium—are in the midst of developing a certification process for technology. Certain devices will be tested and certified for use on the assessments, as long as they do not open any gaps in test security.

The focus on assistive technology is coming late in the test-development process, said David Dikter, the chief executive officer of the Assistive Technology Industry Association, based in Chicago. It would have been better for the consortia to have started working with technology developers from the start, he said, rather than to have gone down a path where they started building all their own tools, then realized those were insufficient, he said.

“Both of the [consortia] thought they can get around this by saying, ‘We built in similar technology into the assessment it self,' " Mr. Dikter said. “It’s saying one size fits all, and that is not true and it has never been true.”

Magda Chia, the director of support for underrepresented students for the Smarter Balanced consortium, said the test-creation group understands that point—but admits it’s been a shift in thinking that she had to “process and internalize.”

Jamie LeDuc, 15, uses a Braille note-taking device in computer class at Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Mass. Assistive technology for special education students has been a heated issue in the development of tests linked to the common core.

" 'Same’ does not mean equal,” Ms. Chia said. “There has been a little bit of a paradigm shift to understand that having the same function embedded in a test does not mean the same test experience for every kid who needs speech-to-text, for example.”

The organization has been working since this summer on a certification process and has reached out to states to get an idea of what types of devices are in use, Ms. Chia said. Smarter Balanced then plans to test devices against the assessment to make sure they don’t preserve test questions or student answers, allow access to unauthorized resources students can use to answer questions, or offer a back door for someone to access the computer and download the test.

Tamara Reavis, PARCC’s senior adviser for assessment, accessibility, and equity, said that the consortium would be “leaning heavily” its test designers, to manage device certification. But the task is complex, and in some cases, devices won’t be certified until tests go live in 2014-15.

“It’s hard, and some of these devices are going to be certified on a case-by-case basis,” she said. “We have to test it and see how it works.”

Affected Population

No one has firm figures on how many students use assistive technology to access classroom instruction. In 2011, according to the latest numbers available, about 69,200 students ages 6-21 were classified under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act as having hearing impairments, and about 26,000 were classified as blind or visually impaired. Many of those students would need some sort of assistive technology in school.

Kate Crohan, Teacher of the Visually Impaired in the Secondary Program at Perkins School for the Blind, uses a BrailleNote Apex Notetaker in her classroom in Watertown, Massachusetts, USA, on Tues., Oct. 15, 2013. The Apex has wifi capabilities and works as a word processor, web browser, calculator, and email device. The Apex device is controlled through the braille keyboard buttons at the top. Emails and other documents are displayed in braille across the bottom row of the device. Crohan's class helps familiarize students with these devices and also general computer literacy. Crohan likes using the Apex devices because it relies so heavily on braille.

For that same year, 125,000 students had multiple disabilities, 25,000 had traumatic brain injuries, and 407,000 were classified as having autism. Some percentage of those groups of students also use technology to access schoolwork.

But technology could be used by any of the 5.8 million children classified in 2011 as having a disability. And the variety of ways in which students can use the devices is changing fast.

For example, visually impaired students may use screen readers on which they are able to adjust the speed and pitch of the computerized voice. Other students may use devices that allow them to control a computer with a switch or an eye gaze. Speech-to-text technology may be calibrated to the specific speech patterns of a student who may otherwise have difficulty being understood. Technology developers are regularly creating new devices, such as those that can connect seamlessly with computer tablets.

Helping Hand

Students with disabilities can use many different devices to gain access to curricular material. These devices can change the format of lectures, books, and pictures. Other technology can offer students different ways to interact with academic material.

Lesson Presentation

  • Refreshable Braille displays
  • Text magnifiers
  • Tactile graphics
  • Scanners with optical character recognition

Student-Response Assistance

  • Talking calculators
  • Alternative keyboards
  • Alternative mouse devices
  • Touchscreen tablets

Source: Family Center on Technology and Disability

Late Start

Dave L. Edyburn, a professor in the department of exceptional education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and an adviser to PARCC, said that the testing groups have focused on designing appropriate questions for the test and are just starting to catch up with the idea of making the test accessible to multiple devices. Right now, “I’m not confident in the blueprint we’re using that we’re going to be 100 percent accessible,” said Mr. Edyburn, who has written several books about assistive technology in education.

The common-core assessments are currently being field-tested in several states. The U.S. Department of Education has said that states must offer their current tests to students with disabilities instead of the common-core field tests, if those students use accommodations or technology not yet compatible with the new assessments. However, if the tests aren’t vetted against the full range of students with disabilities during this tryout period, problems could surface later when the tests are rolled out in dozens of states during the 2014-15 school year, Mr. Edyburn said. The Missouri School Boards’ Association and the Missouri Council of Administrators of Special Education wrote a white paper in June outlining their concerns with what they believe to be inappropriately restrictive conditions on assistive technology. The paper suggests that part of the problem is that the tests are, in some cases, tied too closely in format to the paper-and-pencil tests of old.

“Examining existing policies for paper/pencil tests is not helpful and may actually be detrimental to shaping thinking about accommodations for a digital assessment,” the groups state. “The disability community has been told repeatedly that these new online assessments will revolutionize accessibility for students with disabilities. To do any less is a violation of trust.”

Logan Kelly, 18, uses a computer and Braille note-taking device in a computer class at Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Mass.

The paper also expressed concerns with requiring students with disabilities to potentially need to master devices that they have had no experience with before. Such a requirement would be a waste of “precious” academic time, the groups argued.

Challenges Ahead

At the Maryland School for the Blind in Baltimore, students use refreshable Braille displays that convert computer text into patterns of raised dots that can be read by the fingertips, said Joshua Irzyk, the assistant principal for the school’s expanded academics program. Students also use screen readers on computers.

But, in a foreshadowing of the challenges likely to be posed by the common-core assessments, Mr. Irzyk said the school has never been able to use the state’s computerized assessments. He said the assistive devices that students use rely on a video card to convert the screen image into speech or Braille, and the secure test browsers lock out the video card because of security concerns that images of the questions could be copied.

Students at the Maryland School for the Blind use paper tests as a work-around, but such tests may cost hundreds of dollars and be hundreds of pages long, he said. For example, a multiple-choice geometry question could be five pages long—one page for the question and four pages to display each of the four choices, rendered in tactile graphics.

“We’ve looked at the PARCC website,” Mr. Irzyk said, “and I’m certainly concerned about how a blind student is going to access some of these things.”

Coverage of the implementation of the Common Core State Standards and the common assessments is supported in part by a grant from the GE Foundation, at www.ge.com/foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the October 30, 2013 edition of Education Week as Tech Assistance in Testing Poses Issues of Practicality

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