Assessments that Build Student Independence

Assessments that Build Student Independence I still remember the delight from the first time I got a pair of glasses and noticed that there were individual leaves on the trees with their own unique shapes rather than one big green blob. They allowed me to read the chalkboard – yes, chalkboard – from far away. I could see images on the TV screen that actually made me understand what I was hearing better. I could read faster and access more information because my eyes were not straining, and I had fewer headaches. Most important, I was much more independent, confident, and capable.

Now imagine for a moment that you wear glasses or corrective lenses and are told that you have to take a test without your glasses or corrective lenses. Even though you are not able to see as well, you can have someone read the test for you and even help enter answers as you dictate to them. Is this fair? I dare say that most of you would not think that this is fair, and most of you may find the notion absurd.

Would you believe it if I told you that this is the way most blind and low vision students have been treated for years when taking online tests? In the classroom, blind and low vision students use screen readers and refreshable braille displays to access and interact with online content. Screen readers and refreshable braille displays are like their glasses – tools to help them access content and be more independent. However, when taking online tests, the devices that provide blind students with independence are not allowed, resulting in students feeling dependent and “less than.”

As the Digital Learning Director at the Governor Morehead School in Raleigh, NC, one of my goals is to have the students take online assessments to help monitor the academic progress of their online or blended instruction. After contacting many of the assessment companies that have tests accessible for all students, I was disappointed to learn that screen readers and braille displays were not allowed. In some cases, print Braille booklets were also not provided, but they were “working on it.”

When I learned about NWEA’s accessibility and accommodations work with their MAP test, I was excited about finally having an option for the students I serve. I was even more excited to have Governor Morehead School students and other students in the Raleigh community participate in the usability and pilot testing this past winter and spring.

It was an amazing experience to listen to the students talk about how excited they were to be included in the development of a test that was built for them. The NWEA staff honored each student’s opinion and treated each as an expert by taking detailed notes, asking more in-depth questions to get at the root of each concern, and watching the students demonstrate those features that worked well and those that did not.  NWEA even allowed some students to take tests more than once to try out different screen readers.

What brought me to tears was that all the students said that for the first time during a testing session they did not have to have big bulky books, be pulled into a separate room, or have an adult do something for them (such as read or enter responses) when they could do it for themselves. The student words that resonate with me even today are “included,” “regular,” and “independent.” (You can see video footage from the pilot here.)

I am looking forward to the summer release of the accessible MAP assessments.  These are more than just assessments — they are proof to blind and low vision students across the nation and internationally that regardless of cost and population size, they matter! While so many students are opting out of testing, blind and low vision students will be opting in because for the first time in their lives they will be taking tests that are truly accessible and built for them.

NWEA recently integrated accessibility and accommodations capabilities into its Measures of Academic Progress® (MAP®) assessment, removing barriers for students with visual disabilities from taking the test. You can read more about how this was achieved in our previous blogs in this series, Testing students who are visually impaired or blind: What am I missing?, Making MAP accessible for students with visual disabilities, What does equity and accessibility look like within assessment and Three field study pro tips: Going rogue by creating accessibility in the classroom. Guest blogger Sarah McManus, Ph.D., is the Digital Learning Director for the Education Services for the Deaf and Blind Schools at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction in Raleigh, North Carolina.