Representation

Students differ in the ways that they perceive and comprehend information that is presented to them. For example, those with sensory disabilities (e.g., blindness or deafness), cognitive disabilities, language or cultural differences, and so forth may all require different ways of approaching assessment content. Others may simply grasp information better through visual or auditory means rather than from printed text. In reality, there is no one means of representation that is optimal for all students, therefore, providing options in representation is essential for all assessment.

Guideline 1: Provide options for perception that enhance clarity and accessibility of directions (what is expected of students) and stimuli (assessment materials).

In order to gain an accurate view of students' understanding, assessments must present information in ways that are perceptible to all students. It is impossible to respond to items that are imperceptible to the learner, and difficult to respond when items are presented in formats that require extraordinary effort or assistance. To reduce barriers to assessment, therefore, it is important to ensure that key information is equally perceptible to all students by (1) providing the same information through different sensory modalities (e.g., through vision, hearing, or touch); (2) providing information in a format that will allow for adjustments by the user (e.g., text that can be enlarged, sounds that can be amplified). Such multiple representations not only ensure that information is accessible to students with particular sensory and perceptual disabilities, they also make it easier for many others to access. When the same information, for example, is presented in both speech and text, the complementary representations enhance comprehensibility for most students.

1.1 Options that customize the display of information

In print assessments, the display of information is fixed, permanent, one size fits all. With digital assessments, the display of the same information is malleable and can easily be changed or transformed into a different display, thus providing great opportunities to customize it. For example, the font size of a test item could be enlarged, the colors used could be changed to provide more or less contrast, or images could be enlarged. Such malleability provides many options for increasing the perceptual clarity of information for a wide range of students, and adjustments for the preferences of others. While these customizations are difficult to make with print materials, they are commonly available automatically with digital materials.

Informational resource for "Effective Color Contrast" - useful for teachers when creating materials, particularly for students with low vision: http://www.lighthouse.org/accessibility/design/accessible-print-design/effective-color-contrast

Resources on "American Printing House for the Blind" (APH) Guidelines - see this informational website for teachers: http://www.aph.org/edresearch/lpguide.htm

Resource on "Win Zoom" - see the website on this commercial software for teachers and students: http://www.getwinzoom.com/

The "National Center on Accessible Instructional Materials" (AIM), a resource for teachers on guiding the provision of accessible instructional materials for students. http://aim.cast .org/

1.2 Options that provide alternatives for auditory information

Although sound is not often a part of assessments, it is important to consider the barriers that auditory information may present should it be included in a test item. Information conveyed solely through sound is not equally accessible to all students, and it is especially inaccessible for students with hearing disabilities, for students who need extra time to process information, or for students who have memory difficulties. To ensure that all students have equivalent access to learning, options should be available for any information, including emphasis, that is presented aurally.

1.3 Options that provide alternatives for visual information

Graphics, animation, or video is often included in assessments, especially when the information is about the relationships between objects, actions, numbers, or events. But such visual representations are not equally accessible to all students, especially students with visual disabilities or those who are not familiar with the graphic conventions employed. To ensure that all students have equal access to that information, non-visual alternatives should be available that use other modalities, such as text, touch, or audition.

Small toy dinosaur paired with text.

An adaptive keyboard and custom overlay designed with eight cells providing points of entry to write a sentence. The user may touch and make audio or printed output for communication.

Text is a special case of visual information. Since text is a visual representation of spoken language, the transformation from text back into speech is among the most easily accomplished methods for increasing accessibility. The advantage of text over speech is its permanence, but providing text that is easily transformed into speech accomplishes that permanence without sacrificing the advantages of speech. Digital synthetic text to speech is increasingly effective but still disappoints in the ability to carry the valuable information in prosody. However, digital synthetic speech is preferred over a human reader in assessment situations to ensure that the human reader does not unintentionally give away any information in the tone or emphasis of his or her voice that may lead a student to the correct answer.

Informational resource for teachers on "Guidelines for Describing STEM Images" (e.g., images, tables, and graphs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics content areas): http://ncam.wgbh.org/experience_learn/educational_media/stemdx/intro

"Art Beyond Sight" - an informational website for teachers on making visual art accessible for students with visual impairments and useful in supporting all students in gaining information from works of art: http://www.artbeyondsight.org/

Resources for "Learning Though Listening" - see this informational website for teachers and students: http://www.learningthroughlistening.org/

Resources on "Math Markup Language" - see this informational website for teachers: http://www.w3.org/Math/

Guideline 2: Provide options for language and symbols in directions and stimuli.

Students vary in their facility with different forms of representation, both linguistic and non-linguistic. Vocabulary that may sharpen and clarify concepts for one student may be opaque and foreign to another. A graph that illustrates the relationship between two variables may be informative to one student and inaccessible or puzzling to another. A picture or image that carries one meaning for some students may carry very different meanings for students from differing cultural or familial backgrounds. As a result, inequalities arise when information is presented to all students through a single form of representation. An important assessment strategy is to ensure that alternative representations are provided, not only for accessibility but for clarity and comprehensibility to all students.

Image of student and materials (a) image of a pig, (b) block letters P I G, and (c) paper and pencil used to write the word "pig".

Using multiple methods to practice spelling words, student sees Image of a pig, places the letter blocks "p" and "i" in place to spell pig and then uses a pencil to write the word.

2.1 Options that define vocabulary and symbols

The semantic elements through which information is presented—the words, symbols, and icons—are differentially accessible to students with varying backgrounds, languages, lexical knowledge, and disabilities. To ensure accessibility of the assessment for all, construct irrelevant vocabulary, labels, icons, and symbols should be linked to, or associated with, alternate representations of their meaning (e.g., an embedded glossary or definition, a graphic equivalent) when appropriate. Construct irrelevant idioms, archaic expressions, culturally exclusive phrases, and slang should also be translated when appropriate.

" Doing What Works: Teach Vocabulary" - an informational website for teachers on vocabulary instruction for English Language Learners: http://dww.ed.gov/practice/?T_ID=13&P_ID=22

Resources on "Doing What Works: Develop Academic English" - see this informational website for teachers: http://dww.ed.gov/practice/?T_ID=13&P_ID=23

"Windows to the Universe" - informational website for teachers in providing science content in different areas: http://www.windows2universe.org/windows.html

2.2 Options that clarify syntax and structure

In assessment situations, single elements of meaning (like words or numbers) can be combined to make new meanings. Those new meanings, however, depend on students' understanding the rules or structures (like syntax in a sentence or the conventions of a formula) with which those elements are combined. When the syntax of a sentence or the structure of a graphic presentation is not obvious or familiar to students, intelligibility suffers. To ensure that all students have equal access to information, provide alternative representations that clarify, or make more explicit, the construct irrelevant relationships between elements of meaning.

Two images of AT. The first image, student using mouse at computer.

Student at computer using AT hears the text as it is entered and displayed with a grid structure to assist in composing sentences and stories.

The second image, screen the student sees and use of the mouse to select images for sentence.

Image of computer screen where student hears the text as it is entered and displayed.

2.3 Options for decoding text or mathematical notation

The ability to fluently decode words, numbers, or symbols that have been presented in an encoded format (e.g., visual symbols for text, haptic symbols for braille, algebraic numbers for quantity) takes years of practice for any student, and some students never reach automaticity. That lack of fluency or automaticity greatly increases the cognitive load of decoding, thereby reducing the capacity to comprehend and process information. To ensure that all students have equal access to assessment items, when the ability to decode is not the focus of the item, it is important to provide options that reduce the barriers that decoding raises for students who are unfamiliar or disfluent with the symbols.

2.4 Options that promote cross-linguistic understanding

The language of assessments are usually monolingual, but the students in the classroom often are not. Especially for new learners of the dominant language (e.g., English in U.S. schools), the accessibility of information is greatly reduced when no linguistic alternatives are available to provide entry points for non-native speakers of the dominant language. Providing alternatives as an option, especially for key information or vocabulary, is an important aspect of accessibility when language proficiency is not being tested.

2.5 Options that illustrate key concepts non-linguistically

Assessments are often dominated by information presented in text. But text is a weak format for presenting many concepts and processes. Furthermore, text is a particularly weak form of presentation for students who have text- or language-related disabilities. Providing alternatives—especially illustrations, simulations, images, or interactive graphics—can make the information presented in text more comprehensible for any student and accessible for some who would find it completely inaccessible in text.

Small toy dinosaur paired with text.

An object (toy dinosaur) representing the word "dinosaur" is paired with the term in the text.

Decades of cognitive science research has demonstrated that the capability to transform accessible information into useable knowledge is an active process, not a passive one. Constructing useable knowledge—knowledge that is accessible for future decision-making—depends not on merely perceiving information but on active "information-processing skills," like selective attending, integrating new information with prior knowledge, strategic categorization, and active memorization. Individuals differ greatly in their skills in information processing, and in their access to prior knowledge through which they can assimilate new information. Proper design and presentation of assessment items can provide the construct irrelevant cognitive ramps that are necessary to ensure that all students have access to the information presented in test items.

3.1 Provide flexible directions and stimuli that supply or prime background knowledge

Information—facts, concepts, principles, or ideas—is more easily understood when it is presented in a way that primes, activates, or provides any prerequisite knowledge. Differential barriers and inequities exist when some students lack the background knowledge that is critical to answering test items correctly. Those barriers can be reduced when options are available that supply or activate construct irrelevant prior knowledge, or link elsewhere to the construct irrelevant prerequisite information.

Resources on "Teaching Strategies: Activating Prior Knowledge" - see this informational website for teachers, administrators and students: http://esolonline.tki.org.nz/

Resources for "TeacherVision: Activating Background Knowledge" - see this informational website for teachers, administrator, and students: http://www.teachervision.fen.com/skill-builder/reading-comprehension/48540.html

3.2 Provide flexible directions and stimuli that highlight critical features, ideas, and relationships

Wax circle around an important word in a sentence illustration of tactile highlighting.

Sentence in text and symbols with the word dinosaurs circled using wax string as a tactile highlight. www.widgit.com

One of the most effective ways to make information more accessible is to provide explicit cues or prompts that help individuals attend to those features that matter most while avoiding those that matter least. Depending upon the construct that the item is measuring, highlighting may emphasize (1) the critical features that distinguish one concept from another, (2) the ""big ideas"" that organize domains of information, (3) the relationships between disparate concepts and ideas, and (4) the relationships between new information and prior knowledge.

3.3 Provide flexible directions and stimuli that guide exploration and information processing

Successful transformation of information into useable knowledge often requires the application of mental strategies and skills for ""processing"" that information. These cognitive, or meta-cognitive, strategies involve the selection and manipulation of information so that it can be more effectively summarized, categorized, prioritized, contextualized, and remembered. While some students in an assessment situation may have a full repertoire of these strategies and the knowledge of when to apply them, most students do not. Well-designed assessment directions and stimuli can provide customized and embedded models, scaffolds, and feedback to assist students who have very diverse abilities and disabilities in using those strategies effectively.

3.4 Provide flexible directions and stimuli that facilitate memory and transfer

Cognitive scaffolds are likely to enhance retention for some students; however, other students have weaknesses or disabilities that will require explicit supports for memory and transfer in order to improve cognitive accessibility. In assessment directions and stimuli, construct-irrelevant supports for memory and transfer may include techniques that are designed to heighten the memorability of information, and those that prompt and guide students to employ explicit strategies.