NCEO - National Center on Educational Outcomes

Universal Design and ELLs with Disabilities


Universal design principles address policies and practices that improve access to learning and assessment for all students, including English language learners (ELLs) and ELLs with disabilities.

Universal design principles are important to the development and review of assessments because some assessment designs pose barriers to ELLs with disabilities showing what they know. Research has demonstrated that universal design techniques can result in more accurate understanding of what fluent-English speaking students with disabilities know and can do. Work is just beginning on identifying effective universal design techniques that address the needs of ELLs with disabilities. Because the way that some ELLs with disabilities display their knowledge is affected by the interaction of their second language learning and disability-related characteristics, there may be different design features of tests that pose barriers for these students compared to fluent-English speaking students with disabilities.

Universal design of assessments does not simply mean that tests are administered on computers. In fact, universal design techniques should be applied from the beginning of test development to the point when students engage in assessments. Universally designed general assessments may diminish the need for alternate assessments for those general assessments, and may provide states with more cost-effective assessments. Further, these tests can provide educators with more valid inferences about the achievement levels of ELLs with disabilities, as well as their fluent- or native-English speaking peers and their ELL peers who do not have disabilities. Universal design elements and procedures are continually being refined and clarified through additional research.

More is available on how Universal Design is applied to tests that native- or fluent-English speaking students with disabilities take.