This past winter, I traveled around the country to visit a handful of schools, specifically catered to educating the blind. I visited these schools to conduct a field study on screen readers and refreshable braille capabilities. While I came away from the field study with valuable insights, a student’s comment continues to resonate with me even to this day, “this is the first time I have ever been able to take an online accessible test before”. The work NWEA is doing to make online testing accessible to a wider field of students is ground breaking in the industry. To get some background information on this work read our previous blog: What does equity and accessibility look like within assessment?
Since the field study, I have had a chance to reflect and identified the three biggest lessons learned in achieving a successful accessibility field study.
Before writing requirements or designing wire frames, make sure you have full support from your company’s leadership to tackle this difficult process. This is a must if you are going to attempt to make your product accessible for a visually impaired user. Because NWEA is a not-for-profit, mission based organization that is partnering to help ALL kids learn, the organization is committed to giving all students the opportunity to grow their educational path. During the field study I began to wonder about why more educational providers aren’t providing accessible assessments and content to their student customers. The discovery that our field study was the first time that any of these students have taken an accessible online assessment was perplexing to me.
According to the National Federation of the Blind, roughly 60,000 students have a visual impairment in the United States, so how could we be the only organization working to support these visually impaired students in this manner? Is our education community lacking technological accessibility standards between hardware and software? Or, perhaps is it the expense of doing this work and the concern that many companies have about the effect of this work on their bottom line? While I can speculate on the reason, I am grateful that NWEA is dedicated to making online testing accessible for all students.
There’s an old proverb that states “two heads are better than one”. This adage is the guiding philosophy that provided the foundation from which we established the MAP accessibility project. There are a variety of moving pieces around the creation of assessments and even more details to incorporate to make MAP accessible. From the beginning, our organization understood that in order to be successful, we needed to partner with experts in the field of accessibility to ensure a thorough approach to this accommodation work. We also knew that we only had one chance to get this product to the market and had to get it right from the beginning.
Using the partnership mindset, we have worked with several organizations over the years, including the Center for Applied Specialized Technology (CAST), the Test Accessibility and Modification Inventory (TAMI), Freedom Scientific and the Center for Accessible Media (NCAM) at WGBH. We also made it a point to attend various accessibility conferences, such as the Annual International Technology and Persons with Disability conference (CSUN), so that we could speak with teachers, developers and experts in the field. Without these partnerships, accessibility would still be a dream for MAP rather than a reality.
Test early and test often:
Testing early and often is the key to success when building and launching a new product, and that could not be truer when the product is accessibility. The first part of creating accessibility is to build to just one internet browser. Why does using one browser matter during testing? No two browsers work the same with assistive technology, and varying your browser can cause an additional layer of complexity when testing the product’s viability.
This is the first time I have ever been able to take an online accessible test before.
We also found that it was vital to test students in the classroom. This seems simple, and while we conduct extensive internal testing, nothing compared to being in the classroom. We learned a lot from the dozens of students we met with, and the biggest take-away was learned by simply listening to the students give their feedback during the hands-on testing of the product. For example, we learned that students with visual impairments cannot properly comprehend an image on the screen without additional support. The simple term of “graphic” created a great amount of confusion that we had not originally encountered during our internal testing phases. One particular student thought that all images were the same because it said “graphic” every time she came across a picture or graph online. What she didn’t realize was that image could have been a picture of New York City, a restaurant menu or a graph containing stats. While a sighted student never has to wonder what an graphic is, a visually impaired student needs it explained to them via text and rarely does that happen, leaving that student feeling alone and unable to properly access the image in front of them.
NWEA’s work in the accessibility field is far from over. In fact, it has just started. We are paving new paths and charting out new territory on our quest to accommodate all students in their education and their ability to access online testing. We have gone rogue and are looking forward to others joining us on this path!