NCEO Policy Directions
Published by the National Center on Educational Outcomes
Universally Designed Assessments: Better Tests for Everyone!
Prepared by Sandra Thompson and Martha Thurlow
Any or all portions of this document may be reproduced and distributed without prior permission, provided the source is cited as:
Thompson, S., & Thurlow, M. (2002). Universally designed assessments: Better tests for everyone! (Policy Directions No. 14). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes. Retrieved [today's date], from the World Wide Web: http://education.umn.edu/NCEO/OnlinePubs/Policy14.htm
The standard administration of assessments is not appropriate for all students who must participate in state and district assessments today. The use of accommodations – changes in administration procedures or materials – is evidence that there are students who cannot participate in assessments or receive valid scores unless something is changed. Only a very small percentage of students need a completely different assessment, identified in federal special education law as an alternate assessment. A much larger group of students need changes in the regular assessment.
Because of the emphasis on testing and including all students, the provision of accommodations and decisions about who should participate in alternate assessments has become very complex. There is a great deal of controversy about the “fairness” of many test accommodations and about which students should have access to accommodations and how decisions are made. Research to validate accommodation use is growing, but the research is difficult to conduct and rarely provides conclusive evidence about the effects of accommodations on validity. States grapple with decisions about which accommodations should be included in school accountability and which invalidate assessment scores. Repeated revisions in state accommodation policies is just one indicator of the controversy surrounding the need to provide accommodations for students to be able to participate and show their knowledge and skills in assessments. It is time to take a more global approach to addressing these testing issues, an approach in which increased access for all students is considered from the beginning.
Applying Universal Design to Assessments
The concept of universal design is not new. Its use began in the field of architecture, but its application has spread rapidly into environmental initiatives, recreation, the arts, health care, and education. Principles of universal design that traverse all of these areas have been developed (see Table 1). It is reasonable to expect that they can apply equally as well to large-scale assessments.
Table 1. Principles of Universal Design in Architecture and Other Areas
Source: The Center for Universal Design, North Carolina State University (1997).
The goal of applying universal design principles to assessments is to be able to design and develop assessments that allow participation of the widest range of students, and result in valid inferences about their performance. The need that many students have for accommodations could be reduced if assessments could be universally designed. Universally designed assessments are not intended to eliminate individualization, or to take away from the IEP process. Instead, they could make the IEP process richer by focusing on instructional needs rather than on all the changes that will have to be made for the student to participate in the assessment. Universal design is the best way to increase participation in general state and district assessments.
Universal design is based on the same ethics of equity and inclusiveness that are expected for people with disabilities and others in schools, communities, and on the job – an ethic that values differences in age, ability, culture, and lifestyle. Testing conditions should not be affected by disability, gender, race, English language ability, or levels of anxiety about tests. On the other hand, it is important to remember that universal design does not address deficiencies in instruction. Students who have not had an opportunity to learn the material tested will be disadvantaged during testing no matter how universal the design of the assessment.
Elements of Universally Designed Assessments
NCEO has conducted an extensive review of all research relevant to the assessment development process and the principles of universal design (see Synthesis Report 44 in Resources). This review produced a set of seven elements of universal design that apply to assessments (see Table 2).
Table 2. Elements of Universally Designed Assessments
Based on Thompson, Johnstone, and Thurlow (2002).
Simple, Clear, and
Intuitive Instructions and Procedures
Plain language is a concept now being highlighted in research on assessments. Plain language has been defined as language that is straightforward and concise. Strategies for editing text to produce plain language have been identified (see Table 3).
Table 3. Plain Language Editing Strategies
Source: Brown (1999).
Bias results when tests contain physical features that interfere with a student’s focus on or understanding of the constructs that test items are intended to assess. Dimensions can include contrast, type size, spacing, typeface, leading, justification, line length/width, blank space, graphs and tables, illustrations, and response formats (see Table 4).
Table 4. Dimensions of Legibility and Characteristics of Maximum Legibility
Based on Thompson, Johnstone, and Thurlow (2002).
The concept of universally-designed assessments is relatively new, and therefore what it actually means is still undergoing clarification. It is likely that the elements of universally designed assessments will be expanded and become more concrete as they are applied to assessment design and development. With the increased emphasis on testing in the nation’s schools in response to federal and state mandates, it is essential that this progress occurs as rapidly as possible. This will require the consolidation and application of current best practices in assessment, along with research and innovation to expand our knowledge in this area. Universal design opens the door to ways to rethink assessments to ensure that it is not the assessment itself that produces barriers to improved learning. The concept of universal design helps us to rethink our basic assumptions about how to create national, state, and district assessments that give a more accurate picture of what all students know and can do so that educators can focus on the critical target of providing universally designed standards-based instruction.
2001 State Policies on Assessment Participation and Accommodations (Synthesis Report 46). Thurlow, M.L., Lazarus, S., Thompson, S.J., & Robey, J. (2002). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes.
Accommodations Online Bibliography. National Center on Educational Outcomes. (2002). See http://education.umn.edu/NCEO/AccomStudies.htm.
Assessment Accommodations Research: Considerations for Design and Analysis (Technical Report 26). Thurlow, M.L., McGrew, K.S., Tindal, G., Thompson, S.J., Ysseldyke, J., & Elliott, J.L. (2000). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes.
Dynamics in Document Design. Schriver, K.A. (1997). John Wiley & Sons.
Findings of the 1999 Plain Language Field Test. Brown, P.J. (1999). University of Delaware, Newark, DE: Delaware Research and Development Center.
Test Science, Not Reading. Rakow, S.J., & Gee T.C. (1987). Science Teacher, 54 (2), 28-31.
The Truth about Testing: An Educator’s Call to Action. Popham, W.J. (2001). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Universal Design Applied to Large-Scale Assessment (Synthesis Report 44). Thompson, S.J., Johnstone, C.J. & Thurlow, M.L. (2002). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes.
Universal Design in Education: Teaching Nontraditional Students. Bowe, F.G. (2000). Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.
What is Universal Design? Center for Universal Design. (1997). North Carolina State University. See http://www.design.ncsu.edu.