As a school-based occupational therapist, I found myself beginning each academic year by focusing on what my students needed to learn, the skills they needed to develop, and how I could best use my time to help them be successful in the classroom. Despite it being September, every year this inevitably led me to consider standardized testing – one of the many academic themes of springtime.
My third graders not only needed to know the foundational mathematics skills being assessed, but how to navigate the computer screen in front of them. They needed to practice the fine motor precision to move a mouse and click on small boxes or multiple-choice bubbles. My sixth graders not only needed to understand how to plot points on the x and y axes, but they needed to have the visual perceptual skills to plot these points on a computer screen that scrolls up and down.
This demand for computer literacy skills within testing was noted as early as 2003, when Thompson et. al noted the inherent disadvantage for students who lack access to computers. However, as we continue to move further and further into the digital age, it is clear that computer-based testing has become our nation’s go-to method for assessing its students’ grasp of academic content and subject mastery. Computer-based testing allows for more efficient administration, quicker result times, built-in accommodations, and other positive benefits that make commitment to this practice worthwhile. For many students, computer-based testing is hugely preferred, and the option to type an essay is far less daunting than writing pages and pages by hand.
However, the National Center on Educational Outcomes claims that, “Despite the fairly dramatic increase in attention to CBT (computer-based testing), accessibility challenges continue to have the potential to reduce the validity of the assessment results and to exclude some groups of students from assessment participation” (Thurlow, Lazarus, Albus, & Hodgson, 2010).
So, what happens when this manner of assessment is more difficult for our students with disabilities? How can we help? What can we do?
As is often noted by test creators and administrators, most computer-based tests have relatively comprehensive built-in accommodations. Options such as enlarged font, speech-to-text, and line masking are often built into the platform. Despite this, computer-based accommodations may not be enough. When it comes to being truly accessible, the assessment of skill areas, individualized accommodation, and significant practice of testing systems are all necessary to arrive at an accurate assessment of academic skills.
Consider Charles, a fourth-grade student who has been receiving occupational therapy for decreased fine motor precision, visual perception, and low visual and fine motor endurance. He has difficulty with visual memory and gets easily overwhelmed by visual clutter. As a student in the general education setting, it is initially assumed that Charles will take his standardized tests in the computer format. At his team meeting, Charles’ mother raises her concern that he will fatigue quickly due to the visual demands of staring at a computer screen for the testing period. The team offers to provide Charles with a paper-based version of the test so he can avoid having to look at a computer screen. But Charles has decreased fine motor precision and endurance! How do we accommodate his needs?
This one case displays the importance of considering the whole child, trialing different options, and working collaboratively. Charles could potentially be allowed to take the assessment on the computer with access to a paper copy. He could use a scribe to help him type or write while he takes a computer or paper version. Maybe Charles feels confident using the computer-based test and his mother’s concerns about visual fatigue were unwarranted. Realistically, the team does not know what is best for Charles until they try a few distinct options and get his input.
Computer-based testing tools are here to stay, and fortunately our children are becoming more and more comfortable with digital methods. As we continue to make this transition, it is important to maintain the commitment to be individualized. Each student has different needs, and I urge teams, related service providers, educators, and parents to consider these needs early in the school year and early in the student’s academic career.
Thompson, S., Thurlow, M., & Moore, M. (2003). Using computer-based tests with students with disabilities (Policy Directions No. 15). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes. Retrieved [9/09/2019], from the World Wide Web: https://nceo.info/Resources/publications/OnlinePubs/Policy15.htm
Thurlow, M., Lazarus, S. S., Albus, D., & Hodgson, J. (2010). Computer-based testing: Practices and considerations (Synthesis Report 78). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes.
About the Author:
Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 617-658-9800.