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, What does equity and accessibility look like within assessment and Three field study pro tips: Going rogue by creating accessibility in the classroom. NWEA also has created and is sharing freely with developers an instructive style guide for describing images using words or phrases, known as alt text (alternative text), or alt tags. NWEA developed this new process with longtime partner, the Carl and Ruth Shapiro Family National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM), based at WGBH in Boston, MA. Guest blogger Bryan Gould is the Director of Accessible Learning and Assessment Technologies at NCAM.
It’s a daunting task, describing images for kids who cannot see them. It’s hard to do in the classroom, and it’s especially difficult to do during an assessment.
Image description is challenging because students who are blind or have low vision rely on those descriptions (also called alt text) to get all of the information provided by an image or a graphic that is in a book, on a Web site or in an online assessment like NWEA’s MAP test. Because they can’t see the image, those students can’t confirm that the author of the image description got it all right. Instead, they have to trust that the description is giving them all of the information they need.
This dynamic typically causes the novice alt-text author to include all of the detail they can, creating long sentences and paragraphs of description in an effort to “not leave anything out.” For example: “The image is a profile drawing of a yellow school bus with 14 windows and the words, ‘South Middle School’ in black letters on the side.”
Of course, this is understandable. It’s also not the best way to author image descriptions.
One reason is that would take a long time for a student to read those sentences and paragraphs of alt text. And in an online assessment like the MAP test, time-on-task is a major consideration. Generally, students using assistive technology spend more time to take an assessment than other students, even if they are an A-student in the course. This is because the process of navigating through a Web page or test item and listening to the text and the alt text using assistive technology (like a screen reader or screen magnifier) simply takes more time than scanning and reading visually.
A second reason is that long, detailed descriptions tend to obscure the essential information necessary for answering the question. Again, in an assessment, some obfuscation may be necessary, but the process of determining the essential elements of a graphic should take the same amount of time for a student listening to an image description as a student looking at the image. Otherwise, the alt text actually creates a burden by adding to the student’s cognitive load.
Now, you’ve just read 400+ words explaining the need for brevity in image descriptions. And brevity is just the first item on a long list of recommendations and considerations for creating effective and efficient alt text. Daunting indeed!
Several years ago, when NWEA reached out to the National Center for Accessible Media at WGBH (NCAM) and explained that they had a bank of 10,000 items that needed image descriptions, we were both excited and a little concerned.
Excited – NWEA was looking to transform their flagship product, the MAP test, into a fully accessible online assessment complete with image descriptions. For the past decade, NCAM has been involved in National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Education-funded research and development on the best practices for authoring text alternatives to STEM images for use in instruction and assessment. We spent years developing guidelines and professional development resources, training educational publishers and alternate media producers, and authoring high-quality alt text for a variety of clients. When NWEA called, we were excited to take on a project of this magnitude and impact.
Concerned – In our experience, most organizations, no matter how well meaning, do not follow all of the steps necessary to ensure that a Web site or online asset is usable by people with disabilities. For example, investing in high-quality image descriptions is excellent but that effort can be undone if a screen reader-user cannot navigate through the assessment or select an answer choice due to poor HTML coding. Even conforming to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines does not guarantee a smooth experience for users with disabilities. And because compliance does not necessarily lead to usability, NCAM always recommends that user testing be an integral part of the accessibility process.
However, it did not take long for our concern to change to optimism as NWEA continued to express a deep commitment to accessibility and their mission to help all kids learn. Beginning with those 10,000 image descriptions, NWEA worked through all of the steps necessary to produce a MAP test that is keyboard navigable, compatible with JAWS, and has been user-tested with K-12 students who are blind and have low vision. And, now, NWEA has taken it even a step further, creating a comprehensive set of image description style guidelines that will be free and available for anyone and any organization to use. Now, that’s commitment to mission!
A few months ago, NWEA showed us video footage of students using screen readers to successfully take the MAP test and raving about the experience. When the video ended, there wasn’t a dry eye on the NCAM team. It has been an extraordinary partnership between NWEA and NCAM and we want to express our congratulations on your incredible achievement!
You can learn more about NWEA’s Accessibility and Accommodations work here.