NWEA Promotes Accessibility in Assessment with Release of Image Description Guidelines

An open book on the teacher's desk.

As a teacher, fall is a time of new beginnings: new students, new curriculum, and potentially, new assessments. Establishing consistency among the novelty and chaos becomes a vital goal. The concept of creating a predictable, positive environment for kids is not new (Hannah, 2013); for some students, this stability is a strong reason they love coming to school. While the classroom routine a teacher provides (schedule, classroom structure, predictability, etc.) is crucial, a similarly focused attention must be paid to the consistency embedded within the curriculum taught and the assessments used.

Many supports exist for incorporating frameworks and structure in lesson planning and teaching content, such as implementing state academic standards, response to intervention, and universal design for learning. Modern assessments are constructed with formatting intended to provide that same sense of predictability and comfort, which helps to remove unwanted barriers (Haladyna & Downing, 2004; Messick, 1995). Today, students are taking an increasing number of computer-based assessments (Russell, Goldberg & O’connor, 2003). For many students, these assessments succeed in their attempt to remove barriers and enable the desired familiarity and comfort; at the same time, foundational work for consistency is still an underserved requirement for many student subpopulations.

Students taking computer-based assessments using assistive technology (AT) devices, such as screen readers and refreshable braille displays, are one such population. While the technical construction of a testing system is key for enabling interaction with AT devices to begin with, there is a creative component as well, in the formation of alternative text descriptions for images. An image description uses words to describe graphics, which include but are not limited to charts, images, and pictures, that would otherwise be inaccessible to AT device users. Not only is it vital that these image descriptions are available, but the descriptions must also present a uniformity of structure within assessment.

Context, grade level, and vocabulary of an assessment question all play an important role in the description of the image for an assessment. NWEA recognizes how important this consistency is not only for our assessment products, but also for curriculum and basic classroom needs. NWEA, with support from the National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM), has created detailed and thorough guidelines for describing many variations of images, charts, and graphics targeted specifically to the disciplines of reading, language usage, science, and mathematics.

Students are at the core of our mission, and keeping these guidelines to ourselves does not serve that mission. We feel the best way to serve the interests of all kids is to share our guidelines with any and all who will need images described for any type of classroom materials. NWEA believes these standards need to be applied in as many places as possible to provide the aforementioned consistency. If students have to learn a different way to consume image descriptions for each product or classroom tool they interact with, this is a barrier, and they are not being well served. If students become familiar with a uniform style of description that they encounter consistently throughout their education, that particular barrier is eliminated, allowing students to focus on the content of a test question or classroom materials   rather than trying to unravel the description style.

NWEA image description guidelines are based on our 5 description principles: validity, brevity, clarity, language complexity, and drill-down organization. The guidelines review concepts such as item integrity, fairness, and the unique challenges image description writers face in the context of assessment. Additionally, the document discusses common difficulties with making assessment materials accessible, including issues of visual bias and cueing the correct response. The guidelines are written in a reference format, to best enable users to find guidelines for the specific type of image they are describing.

Here is an excerpt from our item description guidelines, illustrating the 5 description principles in action.


Bar and Line Graphs

  1. Data lands directly on labeled points.
    1. Briefly describe the chart and give a summary if one is immediately apparent.
    2. Describe the title and axis labels. Describe the visual attributes of the bars (e.g., dark blue, light blue) only if there is an explicit need such as a question referring to the colors.
    3. Give data points in a bullet list, separating information with commas. Use a list format when the graph does not contain a lot of data. A table format might be a better choice when data needs to be accessed using keystrokes.
    4. Example:

Alt text: A graph. Longdesc: The bar graph is entitled Getting to School. It shows Ways of Getting to School and Number of Children.

  • Bike, 4.
  • Bus, 8.
  • Car, 6.
  • Skateboard, 2.
  • Walk, 9.

As an organization creating assessments, our focus is on the success of the students. NWEA believes assessments are built to support teachers, to find out how students are growing and where students need more enrichment, and to do so without barriers. The guidelines document is available on our website, free of charge. We encourage you to use the guidelines in your own efforts and to let us know how you are able to put them into practice.

Hannah, Ryan, “The Effect of Classroom Environment on Student Learning” (2013). Honors Theses. Paper 2375.

Haladyna, T.M, & Downing, S.M. (2004). Construct-irrelevant variance in high-stakes testing. Educational Measurement: Issues and Practices, 23(1), 17-27.

Messick, S. (1995). Validity of psychological assessment: Validation of inferences from persons’ responses and performances as scientific inquiry into score meaning. American Psychologist, 50(9), 741-749.

Russell, M., Goldberg, A., & O’connor, K. (2003). Computer-based testing and validity: a look back to the future. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 10(3).


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