So what do a pair of exercise balls, an old lectern, and tiny kindergarten-size chairs have to do with second grade education? For me they turned out to be the keys I needed to create an accessible environment for my students. When it came to learning mathematics, one student needed Unifix cubes to support patterning, another needed to use the TouchMath method of skills, while the other three students needed time for repetition of the concept being taught. It was important to create a flexible and instructional space for my students that met their needs, made learning comfortable and nurtured equity and fairness for all students.
When I started my journey with NWEA, that passion and drive to create an accessible classroom was intensely focused on a new goal. I was now asking what providing equity and accessibility looks like from an assessment perspective. Determined to learn more and support students to the best of our ability, we requested Center of Applied Specialized Technology (CAST), the experts of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and the National Center of Accessible Media (NCAM) at WGBH to train our test and item writers on the framework of UDL and accessibility. We learned a tremendous amount about how to emphasize the importance of diversity, while removing barriers and addressing student differences right from the start. One way we are making MAP more accessible is by applying alternative text or alt-tags to our images within our test items. Alt-tags refers to language descriptions for pictures, graphs, charts and other images. This provides access to information that might otherwise be unavailable to students who are blind or have a visual disability.
Removing barriers is certainly a way to address one form of equity. Another is by incorporating more culturally rich passages into our assessments. As a classroom teacher, providing materials that spoke to the students, in which they could see themselves, brought comfort and helped to remove anxiety. Removing anxiety is vital to an assessment situation. However, culturally rich materials can also be very sensitive, and there is a difference between having the ability to discuss rich, sensitive materials in the classroom versus an assessment. Therefore, we have our reading passages reviewed by an external panel of experts and teachers with backgrounds in multicultural education and disabilities. This gives us the ability to have culturally deep passages that avoid overly sensitive topics for assessment purposes.
I came to NWEA because my values and goals for my students were the same as NWEA’s mission, partnering to help all kids learn. Creating tests and items from the beginning with UDL in mind, removing barriers by adding alt-tags, and incorporating more culturally rich materials are all steps NWEA is doing to improve our equity for all students. The journey for equity and accessibility will not stop there, more steps need to be taken.
To learn more about these ongoing efforts please visit our Accommodation & Accessibility webpage.