NWEA Shares Progress on Using AI to Identify and Remove Barriers Within Mathematics for Students with Visual Impairment

Project created new prototypes for screen reader users that have broader implications for making math accessible beyond K-12 education

October is National Blindness Awareness Month

Portland, OR – October 13, 2022 – NWEA, a not-for-profit, research and educational services organization serving K-12 students, today announced progress it has made toward creating an accessible and equitable math assessment for middle school students with visual impairments.

Last October, NWEA was awarded an AI for Accessibility grant from Microsoft. The project, led by research manager, Dr. Elizabeth Barker, in collaboration with Perkins Access Digital Accessibility Consulting, the Governor Morehead School, and two key local experts: Sonja Steinbach, a math educator who works with students with visual impairments, and Neil Soiffer, an accessibility mathematics developer, aimed to create accessible assessment formats. NWEA has chosen to tackle this important challenge, wanting to ensure students with visual impairments benefit from accessible math and have equal opportunities in their studies.

Seventy-five percent of students who are blind or low vision are at least one grade behind their peers. This is due to many access barriers that contribute to the lack of accessible math education. Classroom materials are not always adapted to formats such as braille, large print, materials suitable for a screen reader, auditory input, or a combination of these designs. Creating accessible formats for students with visual impairments is important for their learning and success, which is why NWEA is committed to addressing such barriers through the work of this grant.

“Last year when we were awarded this grant, I knew we had our work cut out for us because creating accessible online math for students using assistive technology would be a challenge,” said Barker. “Now, a year later, I am so impressed with our team and the progress we have made. Actual educators and students are testing our ideas in the classroom and we’re seeing real progress. I am looking forward to what we will accomplish in a year from now.”

Since last year, NWEA has integrated process-driven math (PDM) – a learning support tool that uses chunking to simplify the landscape of complex algebraic expressions and reduce the cognitive load on working memory – into their prototype. Two equation prototypes were developed to allow screen reader users to select various parts of a mathematics equation and drill into the parts they want to explore. When using a screen reader, a student would generally need to listen to the whole equation, read from left to right. With the prototypes, by applying the philosophy behind PDM, students have the independence on how and where to interact with a math problem. This decreases cognitive load since they do not have to listen to the entire equation all at once; they can skip the part they’ve already heard. The prototype gives a broad overview of an equation, akin to a glance from a person with sight, and then allows the student to dig in deeper to any part they wish.

“I have a visual impairment and faced many barriers throughout my education. There were many times I couldn’t read the board and had to use electronic magnifiers to read my textbook,” said Steinbach, who has been testing the prototype with students in the Governor Morehead School. “I heard the students say, ‘this is fun,’ which is not something I have ever heard in any of my math classes. I was also told that, ‘It’s a good thing that it is accessible,’ which is another very rare utterance when it comes to the portrayal of mathematics online. This just proves the importance and impact of creating accessible learning for our students.”

Next steps for NWEA will involve creating a more efficient way to navigate math equations for multiple assistive technology devices – bypassing the challenge of diversity of devices and browsers while ensuring efficacy and providing the best accessible options. The team’s hope is that students will be able to utilize multiple forms of access such as screen readers, refreshable braille (both Nemeth and UEB), and the ability to use voice.

“Through the work of this project, we have been able to identify and make progress towards eliminating barriers. Our ultimate goal is to ensure that all students have equal access to the questions in order to demonstrate their learning,” said Geoff Freed, Director of Digital Accessibility Consulting at Perkins Access.

For more information about the AI for Accessibility grant program, visit the AI for Accessibility website, and for more information about NWEA research, visit: nwea.org/research.

About NWEA

NWEA® (formerly known as Northwest Evaluation Association) is a mission-driven, not-for-profit organization that supports students and educators in more than 146 countries through research, assessment solutions, policy and advocacy services, professional learning and school improvement services that fight for equity, drive classroom impact and push for systemic change in our educational communities. Visit NWEA.org to learn more about how we’re partnering with educators to help all kids learn.