Accessibility & Accommodations for General Assessments

In the past, students with disabilities, English learners, and English learners with disabilities were provided access to participation in general assessments only through the provision of accommodations. An emphasis on universally designed assessments was initiated as a way to increase the access characteristics of assessments for all students, including students with disabilities, English learners, and English learners with disabilities.

Now, most states provide access to assessments through a multi-tiered accessibility system. As more states use technology-based assessments, multiple ways are available to provide all students with access to the content. Tiers of accessibility features typically include:

  • Universal features (such as zoom and highlighting or non-embedded features such as magnification) are available for all students.
  • Designated features, which may be embedded (such as a picture dictionary or glossary for some assessment domains) or non-embedded (such as English dictionaries), are available to any student, if needed. These features must be identified by an adult or team of adults before testing so that they can be available to the student.
  • Accommodations,  which are changes in testing materials or procedures that allow students with documented disabilities or English learners to show their knowledge and skills (for example, a human sign language interpreter for an English Learner with a hearing impairment who does not use American Sign Language). These may be either embedded or non-embedded.

This tiered approach to accessibility allows for more accurate measurement of a student's knowledge and skills and is an important part of technology-based and paper-pencil testing.

Frequently Asked Questions

Accessibility features, including accommodations, should not be introduced for the first time during an assessment. Decisions about assessment accommodations should be based on what students need to have an equal opportunity to show what they know without impediment of their disabilities or English proficiency. If new features are available in an assessment that are not available in the classroom (e.g., text-to-speech), practice using the feature should be provided before participation in the assessment.

Decisions about accessibility features and accommodations need to be made by people who know the educational needs of the student. Individualized Education Program (IEP) teams must make decisions for students with disabilities. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires different IEP team members be present during meetings depending on several factors. The special education teacher, and the parents or guardians of the student, should always be present, as well as the student, when appropriate. If a student is, or may be, participating in the regular education environment, regular educators should be present. Sometimes, an individual with special expertise should be present (for example, a speech language pathologist if the student is being considered for speech services). For English learners with disabilities, the IEP team also should include an educator who is familiar with the student's linguistic and cultural background as well as the process of language acquisition.

In some schools and districts there may be language development teams to make decisions for English learners who do not have disabilities.

An accommodation refers to a change in testing materials or procedures that does not change what is being measured. A modification refers to a change that does change what is being measured. Modifications should not be provided on standardized assessments.

The NCEO Accommodations Bibliography allows users to search a compilation of empirical research studies on the effects of various testing accommodations for students with disabilities. The NCEO Accommodations for English Learners Bibliography allows users to search a compilation of research studies on accommodations for English learners.

The existing accommodations research addresses either students with disabilities or English learners. English learners with disabilities may be included in such studies, but the studies often do not report findings for them. Educators should make accommodations decisions for English learners with disabilities using the best knowledge available. Ideally, this knowledge should relate to the unique learning and assessment needs of English learners with disabilities. Until there is more research explicitly with this group of students, the best knowledge we have comes from combining what we know about accommodations for English learners and for students with disabilities. The field also needs research examining the effect of accommodations on language proficiency test scores.

Some instructional accommodations may alter what a test is designed to measure. When this is the case, state accommodations policies may not permit the use of those accommodations for the assessment.

Some students may have needs that require them to use an accommodation that is not on a state’s accommodations policy list. Most states’ accommodations policies include a process that an IEP team or English learner decision maker can use to request an accommodation not on the state’s list.