Accessibility Resources Let Students Demonstrate Their Knowledge

In 2016-17, members moved forward with increased confidence in implementing the Smarter Balanced Assessment System, taking advantage of improved interim assessments and updates to the Usability, Accessibility, and Accommodations Guidelines. The Accessibility, Bias, and Sensitivity Advisory Committee identified some implementation areas to add to the Big Ideas for Implementation, so we reached out to Smarter Balanced members for success stories in two key areas:

  • How do members make appropriate selection and determination of accessibility resources for all students?
  • How have members transitioned students who are blind or visually impaired to testing online?

We found that the alignment of the testing environment to daily classroom learning is essential to elicit accurate student performance results. In both the resource specialist classroom and the general education classroom with students who are blind or visually impaired, daily use of technology devices with accessibility supports has made learning more accessible. As Smarter Balanced assessments integrate some of the same technologies used in the classrooms, students are better able to demonstrate their knowledge.

In the following stories, teachers in California, Connecticut, and Idaho shared their successes and lessons learned to celebrate improvements in student performance with the help of improved accessibility resources.

Accessibility Supports Help Students Show What They Know

April Penitsch has been a Resource Specialist for seven years at Eshelman Avenue Elementary School in Los Angeles Unified School District, CA. She is excited about the growth in student performance during the past three years with the use of appropriate accessibility and accommodation resources. Mrs. Penitsch’s students use technology devices and software programs with accessibility tools such as text-to-speech for classroom learning. She also takes full advantage of the Smarter Balanced Interim Assessment Blocks (IABs) to check on student progress. With the IABs, students can use their assigned accessibility tools and supports in a “live” testing session and determine if the tools and supports are breaking down barriers for students to understand the question and communicate the correct answer.

Mrs. Penitsch tells the story of one student in 4th grade who has good comprehension skills but is not able to decode words. By using the text-to-speech feature on the mathematics test, he tried harder to answer the questions because he could focus his energy on the mathematics rather than decoding the text of the items. Another student showed dramatic improvement between 3rd grade and 4th grade after Mrs. Penitsch started monitoring the student’s progress by administering the Mathematics IABs with text-to-speech. After each IAB, Mrs. Penitsch and the student identified areas of strength and those needing support. This review helped Mrs. Penitsch and the student focus on specific lessons to fill in gaps. The student’s performance on the summative Math assessment improved from Standard Not Met (Level 1) in 3rd grade to Standard Nearly Met (Level 2) in 4th grade. The student continues to improve and is on track to move into the next achievement level this year.

In Connecticut, teachers for the Waterbury Public Schools work directly with the parents of students with special needs to evaluate past and current performance as well as what testing tools are available, so they can determine the best way to administer an assessment. Having these discussions early in the school year will ensure that there is consistency across classroom and assessment practices. (E.g., If a student’s IEP includes providing a scribe for regular classroom instruction, that resource should also be provided during the assessment.) Ensuring consistency across classroom and assessment practices will avoid putting the student at a disadvantage when taking the assessment.

Kathy Luras, Curriculum Coordinator, provides professional learning for special education staff in Pocatello/Chubbuck School District, ID on accessibility and accommodations resources that are available on the Smarter Balanced Assessments. In the fall, she starts with a 2-hour training on the universal tools, designated supports and accommodations described in the Usability, Accessibility, and Accommodations Guidelines (UAAG), highlighting changes to the guidelines for the coming school year. She uses screen shots to demonstrate what each accommodation looks like on the computer screen. Educators use this information to update Individual Education Program (IEP) or 504 plans with appropriate accommodations for interim and summative assessments. Educators can then use the Resources and Practices Comparison Crosswalk to determine how accommodations used in classroom instruction map to any new and existing resources in the UAAG

Ms. Luras also works with the Response to Intervention (RTI) Coach at each school to prepare professional learning for all staff about the designated supports and universal tools described in the Smarter Balanced Usability, Accessibility, and Accommodations Guidelines. The RTI Coaches provide the training to staff members at their schools and work with teachers to assign designated supports to students. They complete a spreadsheet for the testing administrator to use when uploading these assignments into the testing system.

Ms. Luras has noticed a better alignment between the assessment and classroom practice with the advent of online accessibility supports and tools. She has also heard from teachers that if students don’t learn and practice how to activate the accommodations, designated supports, and universal tools on the testing platform before the summative assessment, they won’t use them during the test. Each year, she works with teachers to improve the implementation of the universal tools, designated supports, and accommodations to close the gap between the “intended” supports and the “attained” supports that help students show what they know.

Students Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired Enjoy Online Testing

Dr. Carol Scholtz is an education specialist who works with students who are blind or visually impaired in Boise, Idaho. For three years, she used paper forms to administer the Smarter Balanced Assessment to her students in braille. Then, in 2016, inspired by the digital learning she saw her students doing for their classroom work, she decided to prepare herself to administer the Smarter Balanced assessments so that students could use their braille notetakers as a refreshable braille display, just like they use in the classroom. Dr. Scholtz and her paraprofessional, Larisa De-Klotz Austin, joined Jeanne-Marie Kopecky, Director of Outreach at the Idaho Education Services for the Deaf and Blind, to attend training in Oregon, a state where all students who are blind or visually impaired participate in online testing. During the training, they learned more about how Oregon has set up their state assessments and braille notetaking device distribution, and how the computer and embosser connect to the testing platform.

Working on computers is nothing new for students who are blind or visually impaired in the Boise school district. They begin using electronic braille notetakers, learning (e-learning) tools, and software platforms as early as first grade. These braille notetakers with text-to-speech and refreshable braille displays allow students who are blind or visually impaired to complete classwork and take assessments along with their sighted peers. Students who are blind or visually impaired receive digital information and use braille keyboards to keyboard their responses, which are displayed in both print and braille instantly. The Smarter Balanced Assessment has built-in compatibility with refreshable braille displays, which allows students to access the items in the adaptive test.

Project Director of the Idaho Assistive Technology Program, Janice Carson, started the wheels rolling by working with the Idaho Department of Education to obtain a grant to provide the first two braille embossers, which can print out tactual graphics in braille code. With the help of staff at the University of Idaho, Ms. Scholtz submitted a grant request to the Idaho Assistive Technology Project for two new embossers and compatible software to fully implement the online test-taking process to provide her students access to embossed assessment items including tactile graphics on demand. Their grant was quickly approved, and the equipment arrived at her school in January 2017. Students picked up on how to use the new equipment almost immediately, and the first online test was administered just a few short months later.

Much to Ms. Scholtz’s delight, students said this new way of taking tests was fun. The updated technology gave them more options on how to access and answer the questions depending on what they found to be most comfortable. Students oversaw using their accessibility and accommodations resources. They could read a question using refreshable braille one line at a time, listen to the question with a screen reader that converts text to speech, and/or ask for the page to be embossed in braille so they could have an entire page of braille to read and/or understand. More importantly, the change in confidence Ms. Scholtz witnessed was the real measure of how the new testing system impacted her students.

After the first round of testing was over, Ms. Scholtz and her team immediately brainstormed additional ways the embossing technology could be incorporated in the classroom for daily use to produce tactile graphs, charts, and diagrams formerly inaccessible to students who are blind or visually impaired. The new equipment was significantly faster and could handle “just in time” requests in regular classroom instruction that were not possible before. Dr. Scholtz requests braille instructional materials at least a year in advance leaving little flexibility for students who are blind or visually impaired to use supplemental materials teachers bring to class to enrich the lessons. Now a teacher can email new instructional materials to the students, and they can decide if they need to ask the paraprofessional to emboss the new pages using the same high-speed text and graphic embosser used for testing. Students who are blind or visually impaired can fully participate in the classroom discussion with access to all the instructional materials.

Because of the overwhelming success of transitioning Boise students who are blind or visually impaired to online testing, new plans are already underway to fund a second district in Idaho this spring with the same equipment to handle the computer-based tactile graphics and illustrations. The state assessment may have been the catalyst for the change in Idaho, but students and teachers benefit from daily access to high-speed text and graphic embossers in everyday classroom instruction. In addition, aligning state assessment accommodations with classroom accommodations maximizes access for all students, regardless of specific individual student needs.