Using universal design, research and perspectives, to increase the validity, of scores on large-scale assessments

Martha L. Thurlow, Christopher Johnstone, Sandra J. Thompson, Betsy J. Case

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

12 Scopus citations


Contemporary American educational culture is dominated by accountability requirements for all students, including students who are deaf. The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 requires states to ensure that all students meet certain expected levels of academic proficiency and that all schools meet goals for Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). These requirements are reinforced and supported by the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)-the Individuals With Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA 2004). The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act Amendments of 1997 (IDEA 1997) was the first federal law requiring that students with disabilities, including those who are deaf or hard of hearing, participate in state- and districtwide assessments; that alternate assessments be developed for students with cognitive disabilities so severe that they are unable to participate in regular assessments; and that performance be reported publicly with the same frequency and in the same detail as for students without disabilities. Students in Grades 3-8 and in one grade in high school (state's choice) currently are tested in either English language arts or reading and mathematics to meet NCLB accountability requirements. Beginning in 2007, students also are tested in science at three levels (Grades 4-6, 7-8, and high school). Most states continue to administer these assessments in a paper-and-pencil format, although several states are working toward various forms of online administration (Thompson, Johnstone, Thurlow, & Altman, 2005). Arguments both for and against the merits of large-scale assessment as a measure of accountability have permeated educational literature, yet NCLB itself enjoyed fairly consistent bipartisan support during its first 5 years. Accepting that testing is at worst a stubborn reality in schools and at best an incentive to improve instruction for all students, advocates and teachers are challenged to assist stu dents who are deaf in accessing standardized tests that are usually designed for and field tested with hearing students. For some deaf students, standardized testing does not pose a problem (Luckner & Muir, 2001). On average, however, this population has perennially performed below grade level on standardized achievement tests (Karchmer & Mitchell, 2003). In those states that document performance by category of disability, poor performance of students who are deaf has been consistently noted (Luckner, 2004). Reasons for the lack of success on tests by so many deaf students rest, in part, on students' reading abilities, which typically fall well below grade-level expectations (Traxler, 2000). Educators of deaf children, in other words, face enormous challenges in their efforts to help these students meet grade-level proficiencies. Issues related to low achievement on standardized tests, however, may also be a result of the tests themselves. Johnstone, Miller, and Thompson (2005) conducted research involving 21 deaf students in Grades 4 and 8 in which the students used sign language to explain their understanding of mathematics test items. Among the items presented to students, 13% of errors were caused by distraction because of item wording and 6% of errors were caused by distraction because of item graphics. Such data indicate the need for improving not only the educational experiences for deaf students but also the tests we use to assess educational achievement. A recent innovation is that of specifically designing assessments to be accessible for a wider variety of students. These assessments are referred to as universally designed assessments. Research is being conducted on increasing access for students with all types of characteristics, including students who are deaf. Through this research, ways to improve access to tests have been found for all students, producing more valuable and reliable results. The application of universal design concepts to assessments is a process of designing tests from the beginning to be accessible to all types of students, possibly reducing (but not eliminating) the need for accommodations or other special forms of access. The importance of the concept and intent of universally designed assessments is reflected in both NCLB and IDEA 2004. The following requirement appears in NCLB regulations: [Assessments must be] designed to be accessible and valid with respect to the widest possible range of students, including students with disabilities and students with limited English proficiency. (Section 200.2(b)(2)) An explicit reference to and requirement for universal design appears in IDEA 2004: The state educational agency or (in the case of a district-wide assessment) the local educational agencies shall, to the extent feasible, use universal design principles in developing and administering any assessments. (Section 612(a)(16)) These kinds of emphases within federal law show that because all students are obliged to participate in assessments and schools are held accountable for their performance, there is a commitment to ensuring that the assessments will be fair and reliable measures of what students know and are able to do, regardless of their disability.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationTesting Deaf Students in An Age of Accountability
PublisherGallaudet University Press
Number of pages13
ISBN (Print)9781563683923
StatePublished - 2008


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