Creating equal opportunities to excel through accommodated exams

Creating Equal Opportunities to Excel Through Accommodated Exams

The traditional testing environment is intentionally constrained. Though this helps to ensure exams maintain academic integrity, it also makes it a major challenge to fully support and accommodate different learner profiles – especially those with learning disabilities.  

As a result, not only can exams cause students undue anxiety, but they can even misrepresent a student’s understanding of the material by forcing them to operate from a weakness. 

Testing Services’ mission is to help instructors effectively run exams, while giving all students, including those with disabilities, equal opportunities for success. 

The role of Testing Services 

Testing is a major component of how we determine whether a course (or other learning experience) is a success. 

So, to ensure the college can maintain a fair, accurate and robust testing system for both students and instructors, the Testing Services Team: 

  • Provides a secure testing environment 
  • Ensures timely delivery of appropriate materials (according to the needs and stipulations of the instructor and other stakeholders) 
  • Builds support systems to empower every student 

The first two functions lay the foundation for this system, while the last ensures testing is accessible to all learners. A major aspect of this last objective is accommodated exams. 

The need for accommodated exams

As mentioned, part of the metric for a successful learning experience is whether the learner can demonstrate their knowledge and skills at the end. Because every student is different, with unique preferred learning methods, it follows that each will demonstrate their knowledge differently. 

So, even if a student successfully learns the course material, they may not be able to prove their understanding in a traditional academic testing setting. 

This, unfortunately, opens an accessibility gap that can skew results and create barriers – especially for students with disabilities. 

Shrinking the accessibility gap 

By working closely with Accessibility Services, Testing Services seeks to accommodate unique learning needs by giving students with disabilities the same chance for success during testing as those without. 

“Anyone with a disability should have the opportunity to write their exams in a way that reduces their barriers to completing it,” Sandra Ritchie, exam accommodations assistant, said. “It’s not to give them an advantage, it’s just to level the playing field and let them have the same chances of success as another student would have.” 

This can look as simple as offering a learner more time to complete their exam, to administering an exam in a separate space. 

What do accommodated exams look like?

Depending on the needs of the student, different accommodations can be made, such as: 

  • Distraction-reduced area – a student can share a separate testing space with a few others 
  • Distraction-free space – a student requires a private room because they need minimal distractions, or managing their disability could be a distraction to others 
  • Extended time – a student is allowed more time to write their exam 
  • Technology-assisted – a student needs assistance from technology such as Screen-reader or Dictation software 

Because Testing Services works with so many different students with unique needs, accommodated exams sometimes require custom – even innovative – solutions. 

“Every semester there’s something new that crops up and we’re like, how are we going to put this into place?” Sandra said, smiling. “We try to use tech as much as possible to help expedite assistance. If there’s a way that we can do it with technology, we do that.” 

One such accommodation included a specially designed mouse that allowed a student with physical limitations to navigate their exam more effectively. 

Whatever the gap, Testing Services seeks to rise to the occasion for each learner’s needs, from simple to complex. 


Staying nimble through the pandemic

Despite Testing Services’ flexible problem-solving abilities, the province-wide pandemic restrictions brought about a whole new challenge. With in-person testing no longer an option for many, the team was forced to find testing solutions in real-time while working with new technology – which brought with it a few issues of its own. 

Ironing out some new kinks 

With remote exams came issues with the software – specifically, the security software, Respondus Monitor. Because it wasn’t designed with accessibility in mind, Respondus Monitor made the use of aids difficult and flagged students egregiously.  

For example: 

  • If a student tried to open any screen reading or dictation software, the exam would immediately shut down, leaving them scrambling 
  • If a student who struggles to sit still was moving around a lot, or even speaking, the recorded video footage would be flagged, and cause them increased anxiety 

When issues arose, the team would touch base with the student over the phone or Zoom, and come up with a solution, such as printing out their exam and reading it out to them. In a sense, Testing Services was still able to offer a separate testing space and accommodate learner needs, despite the restrictions. 

Though it was at times a bumpy road, Testing Services came out with more versatile solutions for learners, along with a rededicated focus on Universal Design for Learning (UDL). 

Adopting a mindset of UDL

UDL is an educational framework focused on improving and optimizing learning experiences by using scientific insights into how humans learn. 

By designing a learning experience and its testing to be more accessible from the very beginning, Testing Services hopes to lessen the need for extra accommodations in the future. 

Perhaps this looks like eliminating time limits during exams or building out entirely new ways of testing a learner’s knowledge altogether. 

Whatever the future may look like, Testing Services will be right there to ensure the integrity and accessibility of exams. 

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