Strategies to improve the accessibility of standardized assessments, including the use of access features, accommodations, and alternate assessment formats, is a critical issue in creating fair and valid assessment systems. Large-scale standardized assessment systems, particularly in elementary and secondary education settings, play a critical role in evaluating student eligibility for services, efficacy of instruction, and student learning. In many cases, scores from academic large-scale assessments are high-stakes, meaning that they carry consequences for students including grade promotion or eligibility for graduation and access to postsecondary education options.
Most large-scale assessments are designed to be a valid and reliable measure knowledge and skills of the majority of the student population. Yet large-scale standardized assessments can be challenging for students with disabilities, English learners (Els), and other diverse students. Issues around accessibility and fairness have been a central part of test development and assessment policies over the past 20 years and seek to ensure that students from all backgrounds can demonstrate their knowledge and skills. This attention to access is critically important when considering the high-stakes impact of the use of these scores on students.
Strategies for addressing assessment accessibility seek to balance equity in testing experiences for all students as well as maintaining the standardization of the test designs. This balancing act continually brings the field to questions about the construct being measured and multiple ways to demonstrate or provide evidence of knowledge of that construct. Decision making and governance around what is allowable and what is available for accessible assessment is directly tied to the educational policy context and its embedded assessment system. In the USA, assessment and accountability policies involve policy guidance and implementation at both the national and state level. In some cases, state-level decisions are collaborative, drawing upon a consortia of states in the development and use of assessments and accompanying accessibility approaches. Yet in all cases, decisions about accessibility options need to focus on individual student needs and the purpose of the test. Current frameworks include a range of options: those that are available to all students (access features on a regular assessment), designated for some students through a formal process (accommodations on a regular assessment), and designed for a small percentage of the population (alternate assessments).
Research on the impact and utility of different approaches to accessibility on large-scale standardized academic has followed the changes in assessment policy over the past two decades. Research on accommodations and impact on student scores is the most robust out of the three approaches to accessible assessment discussed in this entry. There is substantial evidence that many commonly used accommodations (e.g., extended time), overall, do not change the construct of the test. However, the research base is limited in the extent to which it can weigh in on the possible impact of accommodations use for students from specific disability groups (or with specific student characteristics, which is more relevant in accommodations decision making) or on assessments on a range of target constructs. Further, individual accommodations are rarely administered alone, such that the package of accommodations becomes the accessibility strategy, an intervention that is difficult to parse out in a controlled research design. Continued research on assessment accessibility is encouraged to consider the content and design of the assessment, student characteristics, and accommodation as a complex and dynamic system.
The future of accessible assessment holds a great deal of potential. Recent shifts to online assessment delivery provide growing opportunities to maintain that balance between individual student characteristics and preferences and the requirements of a standardized testing system. Collaborative approaches to the assessment context, from decision making about student eligibility for alternate assessment to the design and implementation of tests via state consortia, all represent ways in which to engage with the broad range of stakeholders (e.g., students, families, teachers, administrators, policy makers, and researchers) that bring important information to bear on what it means to have an accessible high-stakes assessment. A system that is inclusive of students with disabilities, ELs, ELs with disabilities, and students without disabilities or EL statuses will necessarily be complex and nuanced. Embedded in all of these decisions is the recognition that assessment is not a stand-alone activity, but that it ties back to instruction, student engagement, teacher efficacy, and the pursuit of a fair and equitable education system that works for all students.