The Role of “Fairness” in Accessible Assessment Practices

What struck me most about this week’s readings was the language used to describe universally designed assessment. Of course, Rose & Meyer make a very clear argument: “It is true that standardized tests can yield valuable information, especially if one is evaluating trends and information about groups, but as accurate assessments of individual students’ skills, knowledge, and learning, these assessment tools are severely flawed.” And while the other authors don’t seem to argue against accessible assessment practices, they are more cautious, making points about “reasonable accommodation” (Ketterlin-Geller & Johnstone 165), an awareness of “high-tech cheating” (Salend 49), and “fairness.”

Fair Selection cartoon

"Fair Selection" & the Importance of UD Assessment

In “Accommodations and Universal Design: Supporting Access to Assessments in Higher Education,” Ketterlin-Geller & Johnstone make an argument for applying principles of UD to assessment in order to minimize accommodations (thus reducing stigmas and barriers to learning). Before they make that argument, though, they have to lay down some rules.

  1. First, ADA only extends to “reasonable accommodations”—those for classroom practices or environments that “do not place an undue administrative burden or cost on the institution” (165). But what counts as reasonable? And why don’t all accommodations count as reasonable?
  2. Second, the student’s disability must “interfere with at least one major life activity” (165). Yet, even if the student has documentation, reasonable accommodations are not guaranteed. Students must first perform (in fairness, they say “demonstrate”) their disability.
  3. Third, there is an issue of fairness. Ketterlin-Geller & Johnstone note that if students are incorrectly diagnosed, “the fairness of the system is jeopardized because of the inappropriate advantage that accommodations might provide” (165). If all students benefit from an accommodation, then the accommodation provides “an unfair advantage” to those students (165).

Now, Ketterlin-Geller & Johnstone are simply the messengers of accommodation legalese, so I’m not faulting them, but these policies raise a number of questions: What are the implications for students and teachers? What does it mean that students must perform their disabilities in order to receive “reasonable” accommodations? Again, how and why is “reasonable” defined? What do these policies convey in terms of fairness?

My questions continued as I read Salend’s article, “Using Technology to Create and Administer Accessible Tests.” Here, Salend makes the argument for using technology to provide multiple ways for instructors to present test materials and for students to engage with and respond to the test material (41). Generally, I agree with Salend’s argument. I think technology can greatly impact the test-taking experience for all students—in fact, I would argue that digital projects can often stand in for traditional tests (but I’m coming from a non-standardized, non high-stakes perspective).

However, I was thrown off by Salend’s uncited claim of increased accounts of high-tech cheating, defined as “accessing unauthorized information such as notes, Web sites, e-mail, handheld devices, and cell phones” (49). There are two problems I see with this point. First of all, it’s fallacious—just because students have access to technology during tests does not necessitate that they will cheat. Second, if this is a persistent issue, why—instead of creating software and programs that monitor student cheating—aren’t instructors talking with their students about cheating? This comes up so often in writing classes when students plagiarize papers. They don’t take responsibility for plagiarizing because they are accustomed to their instructors taking responsibility by tracking their cheating (often by uploading their papers to Turn It In). Like any new “tool,” instructors should talk openly with students about the ethical uses of new technologies. Without having this discussion, is it “fair” for instructors to discredit technology-based assessment?

While reading these articles, I couldn’t help but think ahead to Cathy Davidson’s approach to assessment. Recently, she has written some great articles that have developed from her book, including “Badges: A Solution to Our Teacher Evaluation Disaster?” in The Washington Post and “Blogs vs. Term Papers” in The New York Times. Davidson sides with Rose & Meyer, claiming that traditional assessment practices are dated, inaccessible, and unfair. We will certainly see this argument developed more in a few weeks, but for now, I think it’s important to think about what constitutes “fair” assessment and remember Rose & Meyer’s final thoughts: “Assessments in our digital age should be dynamic and universally designed.”



Ketterlin-Geller, Leanne R., and Christopher Johnstone. “Accommodations and Universal Design: Supporting Access to Assessments in Higher Education.”  Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 19.2 (2006): 163-171.

Rose, David H., and Anne Meyer. “Chapter 7: Using UDL to Accurately Assess Student Progress.” Teaching Every Student in the Digital Age: Universal Design for Learning.  Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. 2002.

Salend, Spencer.  “Using Technology to Create and Administer Accessible Tests.” Teaching Exceptional Children 41.3 (2009): 40-51.

4 responses to “The Role of “Fairness” in Accessible Assessment Practices

  1. The point where Ketterlin-Geller&Johnslone started from which is minimizing accommodations to reduce stigma and barriers is a good starting point but it ended badly. Trying to minimize accommodations is an idea that should be thought of from the angle of making accessibility to education and assessment easy for all kinds of learners so the burden of that lies on the educational institutions and not on the learners who in their point of view should prove and demonstrate their disability. The expenses and modifications needed is a big concern that might interfere in this but if we are thinking of applying fairness ad equity in assessments we have to think preior to that in fairness and equity in chances and opportunities that are limited to some learners due to designers prior assumptions that all people have the same abilities and skills. I think that solutions for the idea of fairness has to be reconsidered again as it is not fair that some learners will take the resposibility of a whole unfair society.

    • Yes, I definitely agree with what you’re saying, Reem. I think Ketterlin-Geller & Johnstone would also agree. What they say about accommodation policies is definitely upsetting–thinking about students in terms of how much they cost is definitely not a universally-designed approach to accessible assessments. However, even though they give us that information (and show us that legal, institutional way of thinking), they don’t seem to agree with it. They’re just relaying the facts (as bad as those facts may be).

  2. Allison and Reem –
    The idea of minimizing accomodations is an interesting one because too often society’s institutions are sort of inflexible. Do you think that there is an attitude of “accomodations will take care of that”?
    Allison, regarding the discussion of students assuming their teachers / instructors will take responsibility for catching cheating, what ideas do you have to shift burden back to students so that they are taking responsibility for this?
    Also, I was wondering if you might talk a little about why you chose the cartoon that you illustrated your blog with.

    • I don’t have a good answer to your question about cheating (plagiarism is a HOT topic in Comp/Rhet), but I can try to answer the others.

      I think there is this idea associated with “doing enough” with accommodations; that if a school requires teachers to provide them, that’s enough. I definitely think accommodations are important. Like Wendy reminds us, even in the most universally designed class, you will sometimes need accommodations. However, the way that accommodations are termed (“reasonable”) and dealt with (going through that arduous process that may or may not provide what students need) isn’t enough, I don’t think. I think there needs to be a larger cultural understanding that moves beyond our current institutional understandings…I’m not sure how that would happen, though. The first steps, I imagine, would have to do with changing accommodation policies and creating more accessible pedagogies.

      I like to include photos with my blog posts, and I thought this cartoon was a pretty accurate visual representation of what “one-size-fits-all” assessment looks like. Because the animals all have different abilities, the exam is definitely inaccessible.

      Thanks for these comments, Andrew. I’ll try to get to the other ones soon!

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