Using Universal Design to Create Better Assessments

Tapping into elements of Universal Design for Learning may help teachers create fairer and more reliable tests.

May 29, 2020
Marmaduke St. John / Alamy Stock Photo

Teachers should always strive for clarity in formulating assessments. One way to achieve that is through the use of elements of Universal Design for Learning. By ensuring that assessment items are clear and concise, educators will be able to accurately measure intended objectives and performance while lessening cognitive load for students. By following the elements of universal design listed here, teachers can create more reliable, valid, and fair assessments.

Universally designed assessments are grounded on the principle that every student should be included in the target population to be tested. Placing students’ needs and perspectives at the center of decision making in test development helps create accessible tests that eliminate cognitive, sensory, emotional, and physical barriers.

Creating Universally Designed Assessments

Language skills: Students have a wide range of literacy and language skills. Creating universally designed assessments with nonbiased topics or ideas that are familiar to all students helps make the information fair to everyone taking the test.

When developing assessment items, teachers should analyze whether the language or context of an item might be viewed as offensive, insensitive, stereotypical, or biased against any particular group of students due to cultural, language, geographical, gender, disability, or other demographic characteristics.

Idiomatic language: The use of idiomatic language in assessment items can lead to inaccurate test results for students with different language abilities. When idiomatic expressions are used in a test item, they can introduce cultural bias for students who may get lost in the literal interpretation. For example, phrases like “think outside the box,” “brainstorm ideas,” and “come up with [an answer]” can cause confusion for someone who has not been explicitly taught the meaning of these phrases.

Socioeconomic and cultural issues with language use: Some customs and products may not be familiar to students from different socioeconomic backgrounds. For example, the custom of tipping is not commonplace in countries outside the United States. An assessment item asking students to solve a gratuity math problem could make the calculation more difficult for those unfamiliar with the context. Additionally, references to items such as “backyard swimming pools” or “garbage disposals” or concepts such as “day care for dogs” could be unrelatable for some students.

When creating inference items, students shouldn’t need to rely on background knowledge or cultural information that is outside of what is presented in a reading passage. For example, if students have limited knowledge about the historical development of the United States, they may be unable to make the right inference on an item requiring that background.

Topics to avoid: Students often have extremely diverse life experiences. References to addictive or harmful behaviors such as drug abuse or upsetting topics like homelessness, terminal illness, and violence could have a negative impact on students, especially if these topics affect their lives personally. The same is true for catastrophic weather events such as hurricanes and earthquakes or controversial political issues.

If you need to discuss or teach about a sensitive topic, prepare your students by letting them know the topic and making sure that a school counselor or administrator is aware of your teaching topic. Additionally, some students may not celebrate or be familiar with U.S. holidays, cultural events, and celebrations (such as Halloween, the Fourth of July, and Thanksgiving). These topics are distractions that can skew test data.

False cognates: False cognates are word pairs or phrases that appear to have the same meaning in two or more languages but, in fact, do not. Consider the Spanish language, where Spanish and English share thousands of cognates. Some of these cognates are false. So even though the word looks the same, it has a different meaning, which can confuse students and alter the skills being assessed by a test item.

Take, for instance, the English word deception. The word that has the same meaning in Spanish is “engaño,” not “decepción,” which means “disappointment.” Teachers should be aware that false cognates exist, and when a student learning English is confused, look to see if the use of false cognates is to blame.

Proper names: To minimize confusion, it is important to use universal names, such as David and Marie, that have the middle ground of being both culturally diverse and common across cultures in contexts that will be familiar to all students. These names should not necessarily be stereotypical but rather should be culturally diverse high-frequency names that are most likely to be recognized as names.

Teachers can also use names represented by the cultures in their classroom, being cautious to keep track so that all cultures and students are represented. Proper names in test items that refer to people, such as Xanthe, Joaquin, and Siobhan, even though they are unique and beautiful names, can be problematic, especially when they are not phonetic. Students may become distracted or confused: Could this new word be a scientific, mathematical, or technical term?

Irrelevant material: Often, students can get sidetracked by irrelevant information. Adding unnecessary or unrelated images, graphics, or language can distract from the relevant material to be tested and measured. If the skill that is being assessed is interpreting the given information in the question, then the use of additional defining information is acceptable; however, if the construct is only testing to see if a student can solve an equation, then extraneous information should be eliminated.

Universal Design for Learning is an important consideration in developing tests that are reliable, valid, and fair for all individuals. When designing tests, keep in mind that assessments should be presented in a way in which all students are able to interact, navigate, and respond to the material without potentially confusing, unrelated information. This will ensure that students receive high-quality assessments and educators receive accurate information about student understanding, performance, achievement, and progress.

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