Guidebook to Including Students with Disabilities and English Learners in Assessments

Lesson 5. Review the many lessons learned about accessible assessments

Accessibility is the term now used to reflect the concept that an assessment is appropriate for all students. This term includes the concepts of accommodations and universal design, as well as other tiers of support that help to make an assessment appropriate for all students. It reflects a process that takes place throughout the entire development and implementation process.

The history of work on accommodations in state assessments goes back to the early 1990s. Work on assessment-related universal design began in the early 2000s. And, the notion of tiers of support in assessments can be traced to the early 2010s. Much has been learned during that time. Among the primary lessons learned are:

  • With careful consideration of the constructs a test is intended to measure, accessibility (including accommodations) policies can be developed that make an “accommodated” or “accessible” test comparable to tests taken without these accessibility features.
  • Accessibility should be considered for all students.
  • Accessibility and accommodations should be documented on Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), 504 plans, and English learner plans.

The relatively long history of work to ensure that tests are most appropriate for the populations tested has resulted in many lessons learned. To a great extent, these lessons are reflected in the Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing (American Educational Research Association, American Psychological Association, and National Council on Measurement in Education, 2014) and by guidance given to peer reviewers who review all assessments used for Title I accountability.

The Standards for Educational and Psychological Standards for Testing provide this definition:

Accessibility: The degree to which the items or tasks on a test enable as many test takers as possible to demonstrate their standing on the target construct without being impeded by characteristics of the item that are irrelevant to the construct being measured. A test that ranks high on this criterion is referred to as accessible. (p. 215)

The U.S. Department of Education’s (2018c) peer review guidance for state assessments defines both accessibility tools and features and accommodations, and indicates that the term accommodations includes accessibility tools and features that are selected for individual students. The definitions provided in the peer review guidance (p. 26) are as follows:

Accessibility tools and features. This refers to adjustments to an assessment that are available for all test takers and are embedded within an assessment to remove construct-irrelevant barriers to a student’s demonstration of knowledge and skills. In some testing programs, sets of accessibility tools and features have specific labels (e.g., “universal tools” and “accessibility features”).

Accommodations. For purposes of this document, accommodations generally refer to adjustments to an assessment that provide better access for a particular test taker to the assessment and do not alter the assessed construct. These are applied to the presentation, response, setting, and/or timing/scheduling of an assessment for particular test takers. They may be embedded within an assessment or applied after the assessment is designed. In some testing programs, certain adjustments may not be labeled accommodations but are considered accommodations for purposes of peer review because they are allowed only when selected for an individual student. For academic content assessments, accommodations are generally given to ELs as needed, and to students with disabilities. For the ELP assessment, accommodations are provided only for students with disabilities. Accommodations provided during assessments must be determined in accordance with 34 CFR § 200.6(a) and (b).

The language in the peer review guidance points out the importance of giving careful consideration to accessibility for English learners in states’ accessibility policies, especially for the ELP assessment.

Accessibility terminology may differ from state to state. In addition, what accessibility includes may differ for different types of assessments within a state. For example, because formative assessment is closely tied to daily classroom instruction, there may be greater flexibility in the supports made available to students. The main concern in classroom assessments is the student’s needs for access to the content. Similarly, interim assessments may have more flexibility in terms of accessibility than summative assessments. For some teachers, interim assessments are an opportunity to collect information on a student’s progress relative to state assessments. In this case, it is best to offer a student the same accessibility supports as will be available during the state assessment. Indeed, an interim assessment can provide students with practice using any individual support or combination of supports that will be available to them during the state assessment.

State assessments require that the development of the assessment follow standardized processes for design, development, test administration, scoring, and reporting (see Lesson 5 Resources). All facets of the assessment, including the availability of accessibility supports, need to support the test’s validity and reliability, making sure that the items still measure the intended construct at the intended difficulty level. It is important that scores and achievement levels determined for students with disabilities, English learners, and English learners with disabilities be based on the same rigor and attention to the intended construct and difficulty level used with the general student population. The goal is for the accessibility resource to address the student’s needs while ensuring that the results have the same meaning as results from students not using the accessibility resources.

For the goal to be met, it is important to realize that some approaches to accessibility may be appropriate for one content area and not another. For example, translations may be available for mathematics and science assessments, but not for an English language arts assessment or an ELP assessment. Differences in tools used to provide accessibility also may be needed within a single assessment. For example, in mathematics, only certain items on an assessment may measure computation. For these items, the use of a calculator may invalidate the items’ results. In reading/language arts, the use of a dictionary may be appropriate on an item examining a student’s argumentative writing, but not on an item measuring spelling or vocabulary. 

Accessibility Considerations for Students with Disabilities

Accommodations have been associated with the testing of students with disabilities since the 1980s (Willingham, Ragosta, Bennett, Braun, Rock, & Powers, 1988). In 1992 only 21 states had written accommodations policies, but by 2001 all states had written policies (Thurlow, Lazarus, & Christensen, 2013). Accommodations policies changed in many other ways as well, becoming more nuanced over time (Lazarus, Thurlow, Lail, & Christensen, 2009). The concept of universal design of assessments (see Lesson 2) grew out of thinking about accommodations for students with disabilities. Then, more recently, this expanded into broader concepts of accessibility that included tiers of supports for all students (Larson, Thurlow, Liu, & Lazarus, 2020).

Accessibility Considerations for English Learners

The explicit requirement to provide accommodations for English learners for assessments of content was included in ESSA. Prior to that, many but not all states were providing accommodations for English learners. ESSA notes that states must provide for:

…the inclusion of English learners, who shall be assessed in a valid and reliable manner and provided appropriate accommodations on assessments administered to such students under this paragraph, including, to the extent practicable, assessments in the language and form most likely to yield accurate data on what such students know and can do in academic content areas, until such students have achieved English language proficiency…. (Section 1111(b)(2)(B)(vii)(III))

This requirement is evident in states’ accommodations guidelines. For example, Ohio (2018) includes this statement:

1.7 Considerations for English Learner Accommodations

While all English learners have in common that they are acquiring English language proficiency, they are not a homogenous group. Similar to students with disabilities, English learners should not be assigned accommodations using a one-size-fits-all approach. Knowing the student is key.

When considering accommodations for English learners, it is important to focus on the effectiveness of each accommodation for each individual student. Not only does an English learner’s English language proficiency influence accommodation effectiveness, but so do other factors, including their literacy development in English and their native language, grade, age, affective needs and time in U.S. schools. Keep in mind that the purpose of English language assessment accommodations is not to improve an English learners’ rate of passing state assessments, but to allow more accurate demonstration of their knowledge of the content being assessed.

 All students who have been identified as an English learner may receive accommodations for English learners even if they do not participate in the district English learner program. Schools should monitor how English learners in the classroom benefit from English learner-specific accommodations when determining accommodations for state tests.

Source: Ohio Department of Education (2018). Ohio’s Accessibility Manual (4th ed.), p. 22.

And, Pennsylvania (2019) provides the following information:

What accommodations are available for ELs?

School personnel should consider the following in determining the appropriate accommodations:

  • The student’s familiarity with the accommodations to be used. Current accommodations used in day-to-day instruction and assessment are appropriate. Students are most successful with testing accommodations when they have had a chance to use them prior to the test. ELL educators are encouraged to implement accommodations in instruction to make sure to address these concerns ahead of the state assessment. New accommodations unfamiliar to students should not be introduced to students for the first time when they are taking the PSSA or Keystone Exams.
  • An annual review of the student’s progress in English language proficiency and academic achievement. Knowing this information will help teachers, supervisors, parents, and administrators determine which accommodations are still appropriate given the student’s current knowledge.
  • All accommodations should be documented in the student’s file and recorded on the accommodations section of the PSSA or after Keystone Exams....

Source: Pennsylvania Department of Education (2019). Accommodations Guidelines for English Learners (ELs)–PSSA and Keystone Exams, p. 7.

Accessibility Considerations for English Learners with Disabilities

IEP teams in the past had to look at both their state’s policies for students with disabilities and their state’s policies for English learners when they were discussing an English learner with a disability. This was not a desirable situation, and often the teams focused only on policies for students with disabilities.

Many states now are beginning to develop their own resources to address accessibility and accommodations specifically for ELs with disabilities. Many states are building on the accessibility manual available from CCSSO (CCSSO Accessibility Manual; see Lesson 5 Resources).

Lesson 5 Resources

CCSSO (2016). CCSSO Accessibility Manual: How to Select, Administer, and Evaluate Use of Accessibility Supports for Instruction and Assessment of All Students.

Chia & Kachchaf (2018). Designing, Developing, and Implementing an Accessible Computer-Based National Assessment System. See Chia & Kachchaf (2018).

U.S. Department of Education (2018). A State’s Guide to the U.S. Department of Education’s Assessment Peer Review Process. PDF