Assistive Technologies for Computer-Based Assessments

By Mark Hakkinen


A refreshable braille display, upon which users can read using their fingertips. The braille text is displayed through a long matrix of pins that can be individually raised to form letters and words. Above the display pins on this photo are braille input keys. The braille display can be used in combination with a speech synthesizer, which converts text to speech.

It is ETS’s mission to help advance quality and equity in education by providing fair and valid assessment, research, and services for all people worldwide, and that includes people who have disabilities. The work to achieve this mission is facing a number of challenges in a changing world, partially due to rapid technological change and the spread of information technology.

The impact of technology on education and educational assessment is even more profound for test takers with disabilities and special needs.

Disability is not a small or marginal phenomenon. The World Health Organization and the World Bank reported in 2011 that 20% of the global population has a disability — that is, about one billion people (World Health Organization & the World Bank, 2011).

In addition, this segment of the population can include persons with any of a broad range of physical, sensory, cognitive, psychiatric, and learning disabilities. While computer technology can impede access to information for people with disabilities, it can also open new opportunities to improved fairness and validity of assessments (Bennett, 1999).

New computer and information technologies have fundamentally changed the landscape in ways that provide unprecedented access to information and educational resources for all students, including those with disabilities. These technologies have also made it easier and less expensive to accommodate specific needs for presenting instructions and test items during an assessment to students with a disability.

Assistive technologies are key to providing access. Today they often come as built-in features in off-the-shelf products such as the iPad®, iPhone®, Apple TV®, and Android™-based phones and tablets. A user with a visual impairment can simply turn on a device’s accessibility features to enable programs such as the VoiceOver screen reader or a magnifier. Such applications can be downloaded (for free or at low cost) and installed if the device does not already have that capability preinstalled. For users with a communications impairment, applications are available that can turn the tablet or smartphone into an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device. Many newer devices are also able to interoperate with various types of assistive technology hardware, such as wireless refreshable braille displays.

As much as the new technologies present opportunities for learners with and without disabilities, it is crucial that the new computer-based delivery platforms and assistive technologies not alter the construct to be assessed or make the assessment process more complicated for the test taker.

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Mark Hakkinen is the Research Scientist in ETS’s Research & Development Division