K-12 Accommodation Policies in a Digital Age: Is it Time for A Change?

In the space of two years, historical educational accommodation policies for K-12 students set at the state and federal level have become increasingly difficult to implement in practice. Why in many states might guidance that accommodations used when taking a statewide assessment be the same ones the student uses during typical classroom instruction and assessment need to be amended? The answer is simple on the surface and complex underneath.

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Since 2020 our nation has seen a sudden increase in the use of digital technology for district assessments and classroom instruction and assessment. Digital technologies for classroom instruction and classroom assessment frequently are not required to provide the same accommodations, designated supports, or universal tools as many high stakes testing programs. This places IEP and 504 teams in the tricky position of either (a) breaking guidance to remove barriers in the student’s ability to show what he, she, or they know and can do, or (b) strictly following guidance which likely makes the student’s educational experience one of frustration. The latter approach also can provide inaccurate information about the student’s true abilities. Given that it is the beginning of the year, it is a great time to prepare for productive IEP/504 meetings!

Accommodations, Designated Supports, and Universal Tools

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA, 1990) defines an accommodation as, “…changes to the regular testing environment and auxiliary aids and services that allow individuals with disabilities to demonstrate their true aptitude or achievement level on standardized exams or other high-stakes tests.” While accommodations are often considered through a testing lens, students who use accommodations for testing also need those same auxiliary aids and services during instruction as they read, write, and listen and engage in classroom assignments to learn.

Designated supports, as defined by the National Center for Educational Outcomes (NCEO), are features that can be used by any student as determined by an educator or school-based team. Universal tools are digital supports that may be available to all students such as expandable text and items, highlighters, zoom, and breaks. In many digital provider systems, there is often not a difference between a universal tool or a designated support; therefore, tools such as a highlighter, strikethrough, closed captioning, or magnification are provided as a standard feature that all students can choose to use. However, there is often an inconsistent approach taken to accessibility options offered across providers which makes standardizing accommodations and designated supports challenging in today’s digital classroom.

The User Experience

Consider a student with a print-based disability who needs text enlarged to accurately and more efficiently access the content. Prior to COVID, this student would typically request the teacher enlarge the print on the worksheets and passages used during an assessment or instruction. The student’s large-scale assessment administered on computer or in print used 14-point font as a standard practice and thus the student historically selected the printed option. District benchmark assessments administered on paper were enlarged. The 504 Team could generally follow the guidance of a consistent approach for classroom instruction and classroom, district, and state assessments.

Here is what the student reports life is like two years later coupled with measurement observations.

Student Reported Access Challenges and Workarounds

Technology UsedWhat the Student ReportsWhat is Being MeasuredWhat the Student Says Works
Large print books or e-booksLarge print books or e-books allow font to be increased and are primarily used at home. For books read in school, a second copy is purchased privately to meet these needs.Text comprehension and text analysisThe student also downloads and listens to audio books for pleasure and prefers this approach. His mother frequently retypes assignments in Word where the font can be enlarged so the student can access the assignment for school projects.
Instructional WebsitePassages do not zoomText AnalysisThe student copy-pastes passages into either a Word document to enlarge and print or copy-pastes into text-to-speech software depending on how much time is available; additional time
Teacher-created AssignmentsStudent reports the teacher often uses 8-to-10-point font with a two-column format to present classroom assignments.Mastery of standards while reading visually crowded material.  Student has a friend read the assignment or delays work until the weekend where his mother will retype and place in Word; additional time
District purchased assessment software for classroom and district useStudent reports the zoom functionality is difficult to use. The text expands off the screen and the automated answer document covers a large portion of the text. The student must scroll back and forth from sentence to sentence and loses his place.Mastery of state standards, eye trackingPrint tests and enlarge; additional time
District purchased norm-reference assessmentStudent reports the zoom functionality is difficult to use. The text expands off the screen and the student must scroll back and forth from sentence to sentence using a line reader to keep track of where he is. The student takes triple the time of the typical student to complete the assessment. No print option is available.Content area understanding in core classes, eye tracking, and sustained attentionInvokes text-to-speech for mathematics and takes the Reading test without accommodation
State AssessmentComputer administered with text that enlarges and expands along with the items. As the text enlarges it wraps so the student reports accessing efficiently.Mastery of state standardsAdditional time

In the scenario above, not only can historical accommodation guidance not be followed, but there are also sometimes additional elements that are added to the construct for a student with a disability that is not present for a typical student. Without careful user testing with students, a universal support can potentially create a different problem for a student and not solve the problem the digital provider was seeking to fix.  While this scenario describes experiences from a single student interview, students who are English Language Learners, with hearing impairments, who are blind, and/or have severe cognitive disabilities may all face similar or more daunting challenges.

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What is an IEP/504 Team to Do?

Come to the IEP/504 meeting with test administration manual accommodation sections bookmarked, log-ins to educational technology systems, and the student, when possible. Investigate each digital provider’s accessibility options with the student and then determine which accessibility option works best based on what is provided and the student’s self-reported needs. If the student is not able to communicate her needs, her teachers and parents must make the best decisions based on observations of what does and does not work. This is not always doable in a 30-minute meeting so prework may be necessary. Parents, be an advocate for your child but also be sensitive of teacher time. The teacher likely has multiple students with IEPs and 504’s.  Note the use of text-to-speech in the scenario above. Text-to-speech is technically a change in what is being measured if the purpose of the task is to read. It should be used with care.

What is a State and District to Do?

Review guidance from the NCEO who documents the needs of students with disabilities and provides policy guidance to districts and states. Such policy guidance can be applicable equally to instructional providers and assessment providers. States and districts might consider conducting focus groups with students with disabilities before or after purchasing software to gain perspectives on what features work well for students. Students can tell you which systems have what accessibility tools, which tools they need that are not present, and what works and does not work. Specialists in working with these students can then teach students and teachers how to work around different tools. For example, if a digital tool has long passages, magnification tools that do not function well for the student, and no text-to-speech tool, sometimes it is just easier for the student to copy and paste a passage into a freely available text-to-speech reader. Is this ideal? No. But it is also not reasonable to expect a student to work in a format that requires him to take triple the amount of time to complete an assignment as his peers. Time tradeoffs are described by college educated adults with print-based disabilities as a central tenant of compensation that led to their success when responding to researcher interview questions.

What is a Digital Provider to Do?

Digital providers must balance enhancement requests against their ongoing roadmap and make tradeoffs. Designing products with accessibility in mind from the beginning is often less expensive then retrofitting.  Investigate universal design. Products used for instruction often do not have the same legal requirements as a high-stakes test. Interview students, watch them user test products, and have them rank what is most important. Reach out to adults in your workforce that also have similar profiles for feedback, even if you need to use anonymous surveys. This can help product managers make decisions about tradeoffs. It can also help us remember that both teachers and students are the users of educational technology.

Final Thoughts

Because we live in a world that is moving rapidly and staying digital, we have the opportunity, over time, to be more accessible than ever. Recorded lectures that have closed captioning that can be accessed as needed have the potential to support students when they are ready to learn and working to learn. Lectures should not be thought of as one and done. It is an exciting time! Is it time for our accessibility policies at the federal, state, district, and school level to become more nuanced? I think so.

Focus IEP/504 teams on how tools work for the child and perhaps soften the language of standardized accommodations across instruction and assessment. Provide teachers professional development on accessibility tools, what they can do to help, and accommodation profiles that are associated with different disabilities. Foster students as partners on their IEP/504 team so they are ready to self-advocate in college and their career. This blog represents the experience of a single interviewed student. I used text-to-speech to assist me in proof “reading.” I encourage advocates and adults with disabilities to share your experiences of what works and what does not in positive, proactive ways. Please feel free to reply to the blog! It is only through sharing that understanding grows and policies change. And if you are a parent of such a child, good luck with that IEP/504 team meeting. I hope this helps.






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