Universal Design of Assessments

Some assessment designs make it difficult for students with disabilities, English learners, and English learners with disabilities to show what they know. The goal of universal design principles is to improve access to assessments for all students.

NCEO developed seven elements of universally designed assessments based on a review of the literature on universal design, assessment, and instructional design. Test developers have used many of these elements to increase assessment validity and accessibility.

The seven elements of universal design of assessments (UDA) are:

  • Inclusive assessment population
  • Precisely defined constructs
  • Accessible, non-biased items
  • Amenable to accommodations
  • Simple, clear, and intuitive instructions and procedures
  • Maximum readability and comprehensibility
  • Maximum legibility

These basic elements have been refined and expanded over time. Applying universal design principles can improve tests in a variety of ways. For example, more accessible tests may provide a more accurate understanding of what students know and can do. In addition, universally designed general assessments may reduce the need for accommodations or alternate assessments.

Work on this topic is ongoing. Some studies have examined the effects of universal design on assessments for students with disabilities and English learners. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) refers to universal design for learning (UDL) in the development and improvement of assessments. It uses the UDL definition that is in the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008: 

"Universal Design for Learning (UDL) means a scientifically valid framework for guiding educational practice that — (A) provides flexibility in the ways information is presented, in the ways students respond or demonstrate knowledge and skills, and in the ways students are engaged; and (B) reduces barriers in instruction, provides appropriate accommodations, supports, and challenges, and maintains high achievement expectations for all students, including students with disabilities and students who are limited English proficient."

The principles of UDL are similar to the principles of UDA although UDA specifically focuses on assessments and ensuring that they support valid results and interpretations of them.

Frequently Asked Questions

Several steps have been identified in an updated state guide to universally designed assessments. The steps include: 

1. Plan for Universal Design from the Start

2. Define Test Purpose and Approach

3. Require Universal Design in Assessment RFPs

4. Address Universal Design During Item Development

5. Include Universal Design Expertise in Review Teams

6. Perform Usability and Accessibility Testing

7. Implement Item and Test Tryouts

8. Conduct Item- and Test-Level Analyses and Act on Results

9. Monitor Test Implementation and Revise as Needed

The goal of a universally designed assessment is to create a test that includes the maximum number of students with a variety of learning-related characteristics, but it does not fix all accessibility problems for a test. Changes to an assessment item can make it more accessible for some students and less accessible for others. For example, removing nonessential illustrations may make items less distracting for some students, but it may also remove context clues that can be useful for other students. Finding an appropriate balance is important. Decisions must be made with a solid understanding of the range of students participating in the test and the construct being measured.

Universally designed assessments will not eliminate the need for all accommodations. However, they may reduce the need for them. They can also increase the utility of accessibility features that can be used without threat to the validity and comparability of the scores. Some students will still need accessibility features even when universal design principles are applied to an assessment. For example, students who are easily distracted by the presence of other students may still need to be tested individually. For example, a universally designed assessment would plan for appropriate vocabulary support in the design of the test for the widest range of students, but some English learners or English learners with disabilities may still need word-to-word dictionary or word list. Finally, students who must use braille will still need a braille test.

Developing assessments using universal design principles may result in more valid scores. Valid test results reflect actual student knowledge and skills, and not extraneous factors. Universal design principles include careful thought about the construct (what the test is measuring), level of difficulty, and nature of the measurement problem. Design decisions do not change features necessary to measuring the intended content or language skills, nor the range of content and skills tested.

For example, if an item on a fourth grade math test is intended to assess a student's knowledge of how to find the perimeter of a rectangle, that focus would not change in a universally designed item. However, the universal design process could address issues such as complex language and vocabulary in the item, or the context of a word problem. For example, a context such as measuring the perimeter of a soccer field might be familiar to more students than measuring the perimeter of the living room to purchase floor boards. Universal design is intended to address the accessibility of items, along with the validity of inferences about student performance, not the standard that is assessed.

No. There has been tremendous progress in accessibility of tests and test items over the past decade. Computer-based platforms have dramatically reduced the need for many resource-intensive accommodations, including, for example, humans for read aloud, large print tests, and scribes. At the same time, new technologies have created opportunities for students to set their own preferences for reading and engaging with items. These options include determining the font size or print color, to mention just a few. Still, if an item is inaccessible, biased, or does not align with its intended construct, no amount of technology can help.

It is important to implement universal design procedures from the very beginning of planning and designing both content assessments and English language proficiency (ELP) assessments. Doing so ensures that item formats do not act as barriers to students demonstrating knowledge and skills that they may have. For example, asking students to label or describe pictures on a reading test is a common vocabulary item format on ELP assessments. However, English learners with visual impairments or who are blind will have difficulty completing these items even though they may know the vocabulary. A thoughtful application of universal design principles would allow for multiple types of item formats or multiple avenues for students to demonstrate vocabulary knowledge. Test developers must keep in mind the English proficiency constructs that are important to assess as they make universal design decisions.