Guidebook to Including Students with Disabilities and English Learners in Assessments

Lesson 2. Develop a basic understanding of how the principles of universal design apply to assessments

Universal design refers to making materials accessible to as many people as possible. Principles of universal design were first developed in architecture. Applying them to assessments requires a blend of knowing the characteristics and needs of students with disabilities, English learners, and English learners with disabilities, along with the purpose of each assessment in which they will participate. Universal design is intended to meet the needs of all students, not just students with disabilities or English learners, but it is especially important if assessments are to appropriately be accessible for all students.

“Universal design” is a term that is used by many, and that can mean different things. It grew out of the field of architecture, which generally defines it as “design that’s usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design” (Universal Design Project, 2018). It has been applied to assessments by CAST (2015) and NCEO (Thompson, Thurlow, & Malouf, 2004).

The term “universal design for learning” is included in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which guides the requirements for state assessments. It refers to the Higher Education Act, which defines the term as:

(24) UNIVERSAL DESIGN FOR LEARNING.—The term ‘universal design for learning’ means a scientifically valid framework for guiding educational practice that— (A) provides flexibility in the ways information is presented, in the ways students respond or demonstrate knowledge and skills, and in the ways students are engaged; and (B) reduces barriers in instruction, provides appropriate accommodations, supports, and challenges, and maintains high achievement expectations for all students, including students with disabilities and students who are limited English proficient. (Sec. 103(a)(24))

Many ideas for ensuring universal design have emerged over time (see Lesson 2 Resources). A foundational idea is that individuals familiar with all students in the state (including special educators, general educators, and English learner educators) should be involved in assessment design and development (including leveraging technology to increase accessibility). There should be quality control processes throughout assessment development that include adults and students representative of various student groups: students with disabilities, English learners, and English learners with disabilities (Johnstone, Thompson, Miller, & Thurlow, 2008).

Consideration should be given, for example, to the language demands of the assessment at the same time that the constructs being measured by the test are kept in mind. The difficulty associated with language in the test should be intentional throughout item development. For example, experts in language can examine information density, passage length, language forms, and vocabulary (Cook & MacDonald, 2013). Similarly, visual, auditory, and physical requirements of the test should be carefully considered during the development and implementation of assessments (Ketterlin-Geller, 2008). Many of these demands can be adjusted without changing the construct being measured, either through design or through the provision of various accessibility supports (e.g., braille, sign language).

Technology has opened up many possibilities for improving universal design, yet assistive technology (AT) has increased some of the challenges for online testing. Because most AT options were not created specifically for assessments, they were not developed with test security in mind. Thus, there is a need for special attention to the compatibility between the computer test administration platform’s secure operating system and the AT so that the two communicate without jeopardizing the test’s security. In addition, it is critical to remember students are using AT in daily schoolwork after having been appropriately trained.

Lesson 2 Resources

CAST Professional Learning. Top 10 UDL Tips for Assessment.

NCEO (2006). A State Guide to the Development of Universally Designed Assessments. PDF

NCEO. Universal Design of Assessments.

Universal Design Project.