Most students need to take standardized tests. As a result of recent federal and state legislation, they are most frequently tested in English, math, and science. Sighted students usually fill in an oval or circle on the answer sheet for each multiple-choice question. If work leading up to the answer has to be shown as part of the test, such as in an essay or math problem, a student simply hands in the entire paper. Students who are blind require special test modifications to enable them to take tests but that do not influence their test scores.

What Is a Standardized Test?

A standardized test is significantly different from a test that teachers create for their students. Standardized tests are given to a larger number of people. After the results are compiled, the test's norm is determined. The norm is the average standard of achievement on the test for a selected group. Some standardized tests have multiple parts. For example, the SAT has an English part, a mathematics part, and a writing part. A student receives a score in each domain (out of a possible score of 800), and his or her total score is the addition of all three numbers. If a student gets a score of 700 in English, 725 in math, and 650 in writing, his or her total score is 2075.

In addition to the SAT, there are some other well-known standardized tests. These tests include the LSAT for applicants to law school and the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), which some graduate schools require for admission.

Making Tests Accessible

Simply converting a written test into a large-print, braille, or audio format or a computer CD-ROM does not automatically mean that a test is accessible. The test must be converted into a format that a particular student who is blind or has low vision already uses. For example, since a young child who is blind will not have learned contracted braille, a reading test for the child needs to be in uncontracted braille. A student with low vision who has enough usable vision to read large print and has never taken a test using an audio format may be at a significant disadvantage if the test is provided only in an audio format, rather than in large print. If a test is computer generated, a student needs to have some previous experience with the kind of software the test uses. If the application is not self-voicing, it must work with a student's screen reader. Students with low vision may want to be able to change the screen contrast or font size. The test obviously must work with the computer's operating system.

Especially in more advanced tests, complex items may not be convertible to an accessible format. In such a case, a similar question needs to be developed that measures the same skill as the original item. Furthermore, if an item is complex and cannot be adapted, it may need to be omitted, and the scoring of the test will need to be modified, so a student does not lose points.

Eric Hansen, a development scientist at Educational Testing Service (ETS), conducts research on technology-based accessible formats and advises on accessibility issues. He explained: "ETS has been providing tests in accessible formats since its early days in the 1940s. As new technologies emerge, ETS is exploring how best to use them to improve test accessibility while maintaining or enhancing test quality."

Accessible Formats for ETS Tests

Ruth Loew, the assistant director of the ETS Office of Disability Policy, said: "Our ETS-owned tests include the GRE, TOEFL [Test of English as a Foreign Language], the Praxis series (for the licensure of teachers), and many others, generally with smaller volumes of test takers. The ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act], with which ETS complies, provides guidance in that accessible formats, such as braille and large print, are either available or can be developed for most ETS tests. In addition, tests are commonly available in one or more audio formats, such as reader, audio CD, or audiocassette, if audio delivery does not significantly alter what the test measures. If a test contains figures, generally a figure supplement, either large print or raised line, is provided to accompany any audio format. For its computer-based tests, ETS currently offers (depending on the particular test) some or all of the following: screen magnification, selectable color schemes, extended time, and extra or extended breaks."

ETS also develops tests for many other organizations. As Loew noted, "ETS develops the SAT college admissions test and the Advanced Placement tests for the College Board. ETS also provides assessments for state departments of education and other organizations. These organizations set their own policies for accommodations."

Evidence-Centered Design

ETS is beginning to use "evidence-centered design" (ECD) to help ensure the validity of scores when a test is given in an accessible format. According to Hansen, "ECD of assessments is essentially a way of designing tests to ensure that they measure what they are intended to measure. It begins with a careful analysis of the purpose of the assessment and with specification of the claims that one wishes to be able to make, on the basis of test results, about what a student knows and can do. It then specifies the performances that will provide evidence for these claims. ECD is beginning to be used to help test developers consider individuals with disabilities in defining claims and determining what constitutes appropriate evidence for or against the claims. For example, if one wishes to claim that strong performance on a test indicates that a student can decode words from characters, one should probably not allow the test to be read aloud, since doing so would make it possible to perform well on the test without possessing good decoding skills. On the other hand, if decoding is not an essential part of what the test is intended to measure, then the use of the read-aloud (or audio) accommodation may be appropriate. ECD can thus help ensure accessibility without undermining the validity or quality of the test results."

Another Major Player

The American Printing House for the Blind (APH) has played a major role in making standardized tests accessible to students who are blind or have low vision. In addition to adapting tests, staff members of the APH Accessible Tests Department offer workshops for test developers, test publishers, department of education personnel, school psychologists, parents, and teachers.

Barbara Henderson, the leader of the Tests and Assessments Project, coordinates all the projects at APH that involve adapting commercially available tests for persons who are visually impaired. She explained, "A major responsibility is to survey the field to determine which tests are used most widely across the United States and which accessible formats are needed. I have a lot of contact with test publishers and educators in the process of product development."

Henderson continued, "The higher-level tests are a challenge to adapt for braille readers because of the many technical illustrations and math symbols and diagrams. Simply providing a tactile graphic to replace a visual element does not guarantee that the item will be accessible. Designing readable tactile graphics is an art and is labor intensive. Similarly, an audio or 'read-aloud' version of complex items in science, technology, and math should be read by an experienced narrator and scripted by a content expert. Retrofitting for accessibility can be a time-consuming and expensive process."

Some test publishers and some state departments of education (DOEs) have resisted making standardized tests accessible. Henderson attributed this resistance mainly to the lack of knowledge, not just to budgetary constraints. She said, "Once assessment and accountability personnel from state DOEs and their test-publisher partners participate in our workshops, we see a change. We equip people with the basic tools and information they need to go back and get the job done. They pass this information along. It's about a three-year cycle before things get better as we work with individual states. We can see the results because the tests contain fewer items that are not accessible to visually impaired students. Once we begin working closely with test publishers, they are eager to assist us in any way they can."

Henderson continued, "At present, APH is not involved directly in producing computerized tests. However, we are actively providing information and resources to interested parties about how to design accessible computer-based assessments. For instance, we have worked since 2000 with the Kentucky Department of Education's Exceptional Children's Services as participants in its Universal Design for Learning Expert Workgroup. This work led to the development of Kentucky's Accessible Online Testing Program (KATS).

"Finally, during our workshops on Making Tests Accessible to Students with Visual Impairments, we include a live demonstration of assistive technology and other accommodations that are needed for computer-based testing [CBT]. Our goal is to illustrate that contrary to popular belief, simply putting a test on computer does not make it accessible."

"I don't consider a test to be truly accessible unless the test taker can take the test independently or with a modicum of independence," Henderson said. "To ensure that a computer-based test is accessible for persons who are visually impaired, I suggest that it be designed for the medium from the ground up. Retrofitting paper-and-pencil tests for computer presentation is often unsuccessful. Test designers should write specific CBT items, the presentation of which will be enhanced or, at least, supported by the computer format. It is possible to do so if test developers follow general accessibility features, including making their software amenable to special technology. Simplicity is key: Make the program self-voicing, for example. Other important considerations are adequate training for the test administrators as well as for the test takers. No new or special circumstances should be introduced to anyone on the day of the test!"

Examples of Adapted Tests

APH has been involved in adapting or in helping to adapt many standardized tests. Here are some descriptions of how various tests were adapted.

Stanford Achievement Test

The Stanford Achievement Test, now in its 10th edition, is administered to many school-age children in the United States. The test covers such domains as vocabulary, reading comprehension, and math. APH made the following adaptations to make the test accessible to students who are visually impaired:

  1. Large-print editions conform to APH standards and are now in print that is 18 point or larger. The text was reformatted for optimal readability, not just for enlargement.

  2. Braille editions were developed according to the guidelines of the Braille Authority of North America and follow APH standards for the design of tactile graphics.

Woodcock-Johnson III: Tests of Achievement

This test consists of a variety of subtests and is generally used from kindergarten through graduate school. It covers such areas as reading comprehension, aural expression, math calculation, and math reasoning. Accessible versions of the test are currently under development, with Henderson as the project leader. Braille and large-print editions will be available, and the large print will be in full color.

Administering Standardized Tests

Once an adapted test is created, it needs to be administered to students. Administration involves much more than just handing a test to a student. The American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) has a checklist for test coordinators and staff who will be with students during a test (see For More Information at the end of this article).

Guidelines for Test Coordinators

  1. Make sure that the adapted tests arrive when the regular standardized tests arrive.

  2. Ensure that the test is in the correct format. If a braille version of a test is ordered, a braille test should be delivered.

  3. Ensure that all special materials, such as manipulatives, assistive technology, and test- administration manuals are present and in good working order.

  4. Arrange for the training of proctors, readers, and transcribers. Make sure that these people are familiar with the test's content areas and all special equipment that will be used.

Guidelines for Test Administrators or Proctors

  1. Become familiar with the adapted test as well as the regular standardized test.

  2. Make sure that all assistive technology and other supplies are available on the day of the test. If a student usually uses an abacus for math, then one needs to be present for the test.

  3. Orient the student to the testing area and materials.

  4. Make sure the test answers are sent to the correct place for scoring.

Responsibilities of Readers and Transcribers

  1. Readers must be familiar with special symbols and terminology and be able to pronounce common words.

  2. Transcribers must write the student's answers exactly, including grammar and punctuation.

  3. A second person should proofread the answers to ensure they were recorded correctly.

  4. Braille transcribers must know literary braille and the Nemeth Code for braille math and science tests.

Toward the Future

Hansen said, "We expect that future generations of computer-based testing will incorporate additional accessibility features, such as keyboard-only operability and the use of synthesized speech. Such features could enhance the usability of computer-based tests for individuals who are blind or have low vision." Henderson said, "I have seen attitudes change over the past few years, not just because of recent legislation. Test publishers are placing more and more special education teachers on staff, so that an awareness of the needs of individuals with disabilities comes from within the companies now. Organizations like ours can help by providing specialized knowledge about how to accommodate individual disability groups. A few test publishers are finally being convinced to include visually impaired persons in their norming and standardization groups and to design their tests for accessibility from the ground up. This is tough to get across because huge item banks have already been developed. Finally, designing for the test medium will become especially important as more and more computer-based tests are developed. I am excited by the progress we've made, but we still have a long way to go."

For More Information

An Accommodations Guide for Parents and Students with Visual Impairments, American Foundation for the Blind, 2005. Available online at <>.

Checklist for Administration of Tests to Students with Visual Impairments, American Foundation for the Blind, 2005. Available online at <>.

Considerations for the Development and Review of Universally Designed Assessments, National Center for Educational Outcomes Technical Report 42, November 2005. Available online at <>.

Guidelines to Support the Contract Development Process Between Test Publishers and States, American Foundation for the Blind, 2005. Available online at <>.

New Issues in Assessment for Children with Visual Impairments, EnVision, Spring 2005. Available online at <>.

American Printing House for the Blind web site <>.

Accessible Tests Department web page <>.

Louis Database of Accessible Materials web page <>.

AMP Database of Accessible Materials Producers <>.

Assessment Compendium: Instruments for Assessing the Skills and Interests of Children (and Adults) with Visual Impairment, The Lighthouse. Available online at <>.

Test Access: Guidelines for Computer-Administered Testing, American Printing House for the Blind. Available online at <>.

Test Access: Making Tests Accessible for Students with Visual Impairments: A Guide for Test Publishers, Test Developers, and State Assessment Personnel, American Printing House for the Blind. Available online at <>.

Braille Authority of North America web site <>.

Janet Ingber
Article Topic
Access Issues