Position Paper: Accommodations for Testing Students with Visual Impairments
By Carol Allman, Ph.D.
Accommodations and technologies exist for the purpose of providing a disabled student with access to academic materials that may otherwise be inaccessible. The term "technology" comes under the definition of assistive technology as described in federal law and is considered an accommodation. Accommodations and assistive technologies needed by students with visual impairments should be outlined on the student's Individualized Education Program (IEP). These accommodations should monitored periodically for their effectiveness with the individual student and revised as appropriate. Any accommodations provided for students during the testing window should be ones typically used by that student in the classroom and not new or unfamiliar ones.
This paper provides an overview of accommodations in testing that might be effective for students with visual impairments and should be documented on their IEP. Five major categories of accommodations that include presentation, response, setting, scheduling, and special tools are discussed. Not all of the accommodations presented in this paper are intended for use by every student with a visual impairment. Likewise, some accommodations needed by students with visual impairments may not be discussed.
The need for accommodations is the decision of the Individualized Education Program (IEP) team and must be recorded on the IEP. Accommodations used in testing should match those used by the student for classroom instruction. Accommodation use is determined by evaluating factors unique to each student and must be implemented as outlined on the IEP. Evaluation of the effectiveness of accommodations for individual students is highly recommended. Further, students must be trained to use accommodations. For example, providing a test orally or on a computer might actually penalize a student who has not been trained to listen to material presented orally or trained to use a computer for assessment. Accommodations should be continually evaluated to ensure that they are effective for the student. Some accommodations should be eliminated if the student arrives at a point where he or she either does not need the accommodation or the accommodation is ineffective.
Students with visual impairments have several options for accessing test materials. According to recent data collected by the American Printing House for the Blind (2003), 9% of the visually impaired student population use braille as their primary mode of reading. Approximately 26% use large print materials, while only 6% are auditory readers who would require test materials to be presented in audio format. Prereaders (27%) may use auditory materials until they learn braille or print. Of the nonreaders (32%), some may use braille, large print, and audio on a very limited basis. However, there are many whose significant cognitive disability would inhibit them from successfully using braille, large print, and audio materials. Most of these students are involved in educational programs that do not rely heavily on traditional reading media and modes of learning and communication. This population of students may use augmentative or tactile communication systems and might qualify for alternate assessment in the statewide assessment program. The remainder of the visually impaired school-aged population who are readers access standard print materials with or without low vision aids.
Braille, large print, magnified print, and audio presentation are accommodations that allow visually impaired students access to the testing environment. Some of these students may use a combination of these media to complete a single test. A student may, for example, read a passage in braille and prefer to access a table or chart in a large print or magnified format. Students using an audio version of a test as an accommodation would also be allowed to use print (large print or standard print with a magnification device) and/or braille versions of the test, if requested. Further, a student may prefer to listen to an orally presented passage but access a table or chart in a large print or braille version of the test. If a multimedia presentation is used, the various media must be coordinated to ensure accuracy and accessibility. It should be noted that computer-assisted testing is becoming very popular and requires special attention to be accessible for students with visual impairments.
Braille and Tactile Graphics
Braille is a system of raised dots that represent words and letters. It is used as a presentation method for those students who typically read braille for classroom instruction. Braille may be presented as contracted (using short forms for words as outlined in English Braille Code) or in uncontracted format (using no short forms, i.e., spelling each word letter by letter). Most students will use the standard contracted braille. A few students, such as those who are just learning braille in the early grades or who are newly blinded, may need uncontracted braille to access a test.
The production of a braille test is a unique process that often necessitates the review and limited editing of test directions and test items so that the items are understandable when presented in braille and tactile graphics format. Such editing may involve subtle word changes to directions (replacing "circle the answer" with "mark the answer"), relocation of stimulus information (moving the question above a graph or chart), simplification of a graph or chart (removing extraneous information without deleting answers or foils), or replacing an item that cannot be reflected in braille with an item of equal weight, value, and difficulty (replacing an item that requires strictly visual skills, such as visual illusion, with a similar item that assesses the same concept and is more accessible to blind students). However, an item need not be replaced or omitted simply because it is presented in a manner that requires some visual interpretation. For example, the concept of understanding a shadow and what causes a shadow is an important concept for a blind student to understand. Therefore, this skill can be assessed through use of descriptions and tactile graphics. If, however, a test or particular subject includes a high percentage of visual items, then consideration may be given to substituting some of the "visual" items. Students who read using braille are expected to meet the same standards that other students meet, even though they are doing so tactually. The process of editing a test for braille production should in no way simplify or reduce the difficulty of the test material.
Once test material has been edited for braille transcription, qualified persons will transcribe the print into braille by using the recommended edits and guidelines for braille transcription and formatting. The transcribed braille test must be proofread and produced so that the braille reader receives a high quality test in the same timely manner as sighted students receive their test.
Large Print Text and Graphics
Large print is considered such when it is 18-point type and larger. Enlarged print is typically that which is 14 point, 16 point, or standard-sized print that has been enlarged using magnification devices. Enlarged print and large print are accommodations.
Large print should be produced by using an electronic version of the test to reformat the test so that fonts are larger, fewer items are on a page, graphics are contained on one page, answer choices are presented with the questions, and attention is given to improving the contrast and reducing the shading and gray scale that interferes with reading the material presented. The process of using a photocopier to enlarge test content should be avoided since this method lacks the control needed to ensure that all test material (exponential numbers, footnotes, and graphic material) is represented in a readable point size, that text is clear and without gray scale interference, and that problems dealing with measurement are presented accurately. For example, a butterfly measuring two inches in the standard print test must remain two inches in the large print version.
Some students will use magnification devices (discussed in more detail in the section of this paper on special tools considerations) with large print or with standard print to access test materials. Therefore, it is important that the standard print version of a test exhibit good contrast and a clear print style to allow effective use of magnification.
Generally, students with visual impairments should be expected to read materials by using print or braille. Access to print is a critical literacy skill for all individuals. However, where audio presentation is allowed, and for reducing the time needed to complete a test, some students who are visually impaired may need directions or some test items presented orally to them.
Audio presentation of print materials is a presentation accommodation allowing for all or part of a test to be presented on cassette tape, CD, computer and specialized screen reader or text reader software, or read aloud to a student. Students should use these accommodations only if they use audio media for classroom instruction. The skill of listening to spoken material and manipulating a computer, cassette tape player or CD player is different from the skill needed to read and interpret print or braille. Therefore, navigating through a cassette tape, computer with screen reader, or audio CD in a testing environment requires practice. Further, the test purpose must be specified to ensure that oral presentation of a test or portions of a test do not invalidate results or preclude the reporting of test results. For example, if the reading skill of decoding print (or braille) is being assessed, audio presentation of the text could invalidate the purpose of the test.
The transfer of test material onto audio tape requires a process similar to the construction of test materials in braille. Print text must be edited for audio presentation, produced in audio format by experienced audio engineers, and then proofed for accuracy. Additionally, any graphic material must be described and provided as a supplement in braille, large print, or standard print. Accurately describing graphic material requires attention to the critical components of the graphic and careful consideration of which details can be included in or omitted from the description without providing the answer or excluding the foils imbedded in the question.
If a test or part of a test is to be read to a student, there are recommended practices for ensuring that this accommodation is provided correctly:
- A reader must be skilled in presenting various types of test materials. For example, a reader familiar with mathematical symbols is required for the correct delivery of higher level math formulas and equations.
- The person selected to read a test to a student should exhibit good voice quality, appropriate regional dialect, pronunciation, speed, and tone.
- The reader must avoid voice inflection that stresses or otherwise indicates the correct answer to test items.
- Prior to the testing situation, difficult words within the test material must be reviewed by the person assigned to read the test. Pronunciation dictionaries should be used as references.
- Readers must pause at appropriate intervals so that the student has an opportunity to answer test items or access graphic material provided in print or tactile formats.
- Readers must avoid answering a student's question concerning clarification of testing content. Doing so would provide an unfair advantage. Developing some standard responses to students' questions prior to the testing situation is helpful. For example, instead of answering a student's question about test content, the reader can encourage the student to listen to the question again.
- Readers may find it necessary to provide multiple readings of passages, parts of passages, or items. While addressing the needs and requests of the test taker, the reader should also use professional judgment to determine the number of readings necessary.
- Two readers should be used for presenting a test or portions of a test to a student. Using more than one reader helps ensure accuracy of test presentation and provides the opportunity for readers to rest during the presentation of test material.
- Students tested through oral reading of the exam must be tested individually to prevent the distraction of other students. Moreover, the testing of students individually helps ensure that each student receives the specific oral reading structure required by his or her specific needs.
Computer assisted testing is an accommodation that has received some attention through research, though studies concerning its benefit are inconclusive (Tindal & Fuchs, 1999). Generally, however, when a student uses a computer for daily classroom activities, then this accommodation may prove useful during testing if the concepts being tested are not undermined.
There are several programs and peripheral materials that can be used to adapt the computer for use by persons with visual impairments. Screen readers, text to speech technology, and accessible keyboard access through braille or switches are all available. Depending on the construct being tested, test administrators must verify that the student is inhibited from accessing software or hardware that may provide an unfair advantage. For example, if a student's basic math skills are being assessed and the intent is not to use a calculator, then keyboard functions or software used for computations must be blocked. For more information on this topic, refer to Test Access Series: Computer-Based Testing available from APH.
Students with visual impairments who use the presentation accommodations discussed above may also need to use certain response accommodations so that answers can be recorded appropriately. As with presentation accommodations, response accommodations with which the student is familiar are recommended.
Considerations regarding response accommodations include the following:
- The student may present answers orally to a test proctor who completes the answer sheet.
- Students may record onto audio tape answers that then must be transferred to the answer sheet.
- The student may need to write answers in the test booklet or on separate paper. The student's answers will then need to be transferred to the answer sheet.
- Students may use word processors to write answers that will be transferred to the answer sheet. Depending on the construct being tested, test administrators must verify that students are inhibited from accessing software or hardware that may provide an unfair advantage. For example, if a student is responding to a writing prompt and the writing will be judged based on correct spelling and grammar, then the spell check function and grammar functions must be disabled.
Each of these accommodations requires a person to transfer the answers onto the scanable answer sheet or booklet that will be scored. If computer-based testing is used, the transfer of answers is not necessary as this process happens as part of the computer test program. The transfer of answers must be performed carefully to ensure that the student's answers are recorded as intended.
The following guidelines are provided to ensure that this transfer of information is performed appropriately:
- Testing materials and the student responses are secure and confidential materials, and they must be treated as such to ensure test validity and the non-disclosure of the student's identity to unauthorized persons.
- Response transcribers must know braille if transcribing braille responses.
- Ideally, the response transcriber should be a "neutral" person, not someone with a vested interest in the student's scores.
- Response transcribers must record the student's use of punctuation, spelling, and grammar structure, and provide the student's answer exactly as it was delivered by the student. The response transcriber cannot record speculative responses for items that the student failed to complete.
- A second person should be made available to proofread the work of the response transcriber in order to ensure that the student's answers have been recorded accurately. For the same reason, two transcribers should work together in transferring to the answer sheet those graphics that the student has produced as an answer to a test item.
- For a period of time, student responses must be maintained in a secure file with test name, copyright year, form and level administered so that the student's actual responses can be reviewed if questions arise.
Frequently, students with visual impairments will need to take a test individually or in small groups to ensure that test accommodations are implemented without interference to the concentration and test taking of other students. If a student is being read to, is recording answers by using technology that is noisy, or is recording answers orally, then the student must take the test individually and under the supervision of a test administrator to prevent the distraction of other test takers.
The setting for the testing situation must allow space for the materials to be used by the student. The manipulation of braille, large print materials, braillewriters, talking calculators, and large print materials requires that the student be allowed access to a flat, fairly large work area. Moreover, proper lighting, while sometimes overlooked, is critical for many readers with visual impairments. Lighting that has been adjusted to suit the student's particular visual needs will help promote sustained reading efficiency.
The use of extended time for test completion is a testing accommodation that has received considerable attention since state testing and accountability systems have been implemented. Research investigating the use of extended time has yielded no conclusive information about its benefit (Tindal & Fuchs, 1999). However, students with visual impairments will usually require extended time during testing because using braille, large print, and audio format require more time than does reading standard print with acceptable visual acuity.
A study by Gompel, van Bon, and Schreuder (2004) found that students with low vision can read effectively with their low vision aides, using 1 ½ to 2 times that needed by regular students. Traditionally, extended time for testing large print readers has been 1 ½ time, and for braille readers time allotted has been twice as much as that allowed for the standard print reader. Another study suggests that experienced braille readers may need no more that 50% additional time than the stated duration, with additional time allowed for the manipulation of an audio device or the marking of an answer sheet (Wetzel & Knowlton 2000).
Regardless of the time allowed, the student should be carefully monitored to ensure that time is being used appropriately. If students need an inordinate amount of time, educators may need to investigate the efficiency of the chosen reading mode or initiate remediation to improve speed. Generally, timing accommodations should be individualized according to the test taker's reading rate and testing situation (Wetzel & Knowlton, 2000).
Reading braille or large print and listening to material presented orally, especially when accompanied by graphic material, can be a fatiguing and often frustrating experience in a high stakes testing environment. Therefore, students may need several brief sessions in which to take the test. Additional break options should also be considered.
Students may need to be tested at different times of the day depending on their optimal functioning time. Students may also need to be tested over a longer time period, a week rather than two days, for example. However, any alteration of the timetable will necessitate close supervision to ensure test security.
Special Tools Accommodations
There are a number of special tools that students with visual impairments may need during the testing process. Tools provided for sighted students during testing, such as calculators, rulers, protractors, or other measurement devices, must be provided for students with visual impairments, as well. Talking calculators, braille or large print rulers, protractors, and other measurement devices do exist, and the student should be allowed to use them. When testing allows the use of non-scientific or scientific calculators, students with visual impairments should be permitted to use an equivalent device that has been adapted for use by the visually impaired user, e.g., a non-scientific or scientific talking calculator. Should a state provide calculators for the sighted population taking the test, then talking calculators should be provided to students with visual impairments who are taking the test. Before they are used in a testing situation, electronic and battery-operated devices should be inspected to ensure they function properly and that the devices contain no saved information, which might provide the user an unfair advantage.
Some other special tools that students with visual impairments might use include:
- Abacus: An abacus is often useful for students when mathematics problems are to be calculated without a calculator. The abacus functions as paper and pencil for some students with visual impairments.
- Graphic Tools: If students are required to produce graphic information on a test, they should be allowed to use one of several graphic tool kits that exist. It is best if the student uses whatever method he or she has used during classroom instruction of graphic construction. The student's constructed graph, if done in braille, will need to be transcribed into print for scoring.
- Line Markers and Templates: Occasionally students may want to use manipulative devices, such as a ruler or template, to maintain placement on a line of braille or print.
- Magnification Devices: Magnification devices include eyeglass-mounted magnifiers, free standing or handheld magnifiers, and electronic equipment such as the closed circuit television (CCTV) or a computer that has text enlargement software installed. These devices do not provide a student with an unfair advantage. Rather, they are devices that the student requires to access print, and they should be allowed as standard accommodations. Should a computer be used as an accommodation, the test administrator must ensure that only allowable computer options, such as screen enlargement, are used.
- Scientific Tables: Frequently, students may need to refer to a braille or large print edition of a scientific table, such as the periodic table of elements.
- Physical Manipulatives: Some testing situations may allow that objects presented on paper (i.e. money, geometric solids) can be substituted with a physical representation of the picture (i.e. penny, nickel, dime, quarter, or geometric solids used in instruction).
- Special Paper: Students may need specially designed bold line or raised line paper for constructing answers and producing graphs.
This paper has outlined the typical accommodations used by students with visual impairments when being tested through use of a written assessment such as an academic achievement test. While, this discussion is not exhaustive of all accommodations that might be used, it is intended to provide an understanding of the general accommodations that are expected when assessing a student with a visual impairment. Documentation of these accommodations on the IEP is crucial as is routine evaluation of their effectiveness.
Allman, C. et al. (2005). Assessment Issues: An Accommodations Guide. 19th Annual Josephine L. Taylor Leadership Institute: Boston, Massachusetts, March 11, 2005. Retrieved May 16, 2006 from the American Foundation for the Blind web site: http://www.afb.org/Section.asp?SectionID=58&TopicID=264&DocumentID=2762
American Printing House for the Blind. (2003, September). Distribution of eligible students for fiscal year 2003, based on the federal quota census of January 7,2002. (Annual Report, 2003) Louisville, KY: American Printing House for the Blind.
Gompel, M., van Bon, W. H. J., & Schreuder, R. (2004). Reading by children with low vision. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 98(2), 77-89.
Tindal, G. & Fuchs, L. (1999). A summary of research on test changes: An empirical basis for defining accommodations. Mid-South Regional Resource Center, Lexington, KY. Retrieved May 14, 2004, from the Mid-South Regional Resource Center Web site: http://www.ihdi.uky.edu/msrrc/PDF/Tindal&Fuchs.PDF
Wetzel, R. & Knowlton, M. (2000). A comparison of print and braille reading rates on three reading tasks. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 94(3).
©2006, American Printing House for the Blind, Inc.