Peabody Reflector

Researchers seek to make standardized tests accessible

Around the Mall, Fall 2008 | No Comment | |

Standardized testing is an inescapable part of modern education; however, these tests often fail to meet the needs of students with learning disabilities. Vanderbilt Learning Sciences Institute researchers Stephen N. Elliott, Peter A. Beddow and Ryan J. Kettler have developed a decision-making instrument called the Test Accessibility and Modification Inventory (TAMI) to address the issue of accessibility for students with special needs.

“This tool should help all test developers systematically apply principles of universal design to advance the accessibility of tests for all students, not just students identified with disabilities. TAMI is helping test developers achieve their dual goals of better tests and better testing practices,” said Elliott, Dunn Family Professor of Education, director of the Learning Sciences Institute and director of the Interdisciplinary Program in Educational Psychology. 

“We define accessibility as ‘the extent to which an environment, product or service eliminates barriers and permits equal access to all components and services for all individuals’,” said Beddow, a research assistant in special education and a member of the Learning Sciences Institute. “In the case of standardized testing, this means developing assessment tools that do not place students at a disadvantage because of difficulties with reading, comprehension or other problems when it comes to being able to understand the question posed and its corresponding answer set.”

The researchers began by developing an item modification guide that was used to modify a set of questions given to students with and without identified disabilities, in both their original and modified forms. They partnered with testing boards in Indiana, Idaho, Arizona and Hawaii to carry out their initial research. 

“The findings largely confirmed our hypothesis,” Beddow said. “We were able to close the achievement gap with the regularly performing students by modifying the questions that might have been problematic for students with special needs.”

TAMI is the result of a thorough revision of this initial guide. It consists of two parts: an item analysis, which uses multiple categories with detailed rubrics to judge the actual questions, and a computer-based test analysis that can be used to assess the accessibility of a specific computer-based test delivery system. The item analysis takes into account factors like the clarity of the question’s wording, whether or not necessary visuals are included and the choice of wrong answers, which are the parts of standardized tests that can be problematic for students with special needs. Revising questions with an aim towards streamlining and simplifying unnecessarily complex questions is the focus of the item analysis.

“Modifying these types of test is not just a matter of ensuring computer literacy,” Beddow said. “It is also about making sure that the screen is legible, that answer selection is simple and intuitive, and that audio is available to those who need it. The goal of this part of TAMI is to make sure that the computers are not further complicating the test or altering the validity of the students’ responses.”

The instrument is currently available to be freely used by the public at http://peabody.vanderbilt.edu/TAMI.xml. It is being distributed to state assessment departments and testing companies in all 50 states. 

The project was funded by an Enhanced Assessment Grant from the U.S. Department of Education in the Consortium for Alternate Assessment Validity and Experimental Studies.

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