PrAACtical Considerations: An Introduction to Fair Testing Practices in AAC
Why do students who use AAC have difficulty showing what they know when taking tests and quizzes? More than a decade ago, Lisa Proctor and I wrote about the unfair ways that students who use AAC are tested in the book Practically Speaking: Language, Literacy, and Academic Development for Students with AAC Needs that I co-edited with Gloria Soto. Later, I wrote about that on these pages, too, discussing how we set them up for failure in our current practices (see PrAACtically Unfair: Why People Who Use AAC Sometimes Fail at Tests).
As I talk to educators, clinicians, families, and AAC users, it seems that little has changed, at least here in the US. AAC users are still routinely tested in ways that set them up for failure.
- We don’t test what a 4-year-old knows about animals by having them write about the subject. Why? Because they can’t write well yet.
- We don’t test receptive language in a 1-year-old by having them label common objects. Why? Because they can’t talk well yet.
But we routinely test academic knowledge in ways that require a linguistic response, even with students who don’t yet have solid skills in expressing themselves with AAC. And we do it even with students who haven’t yet developed test-taking skills.
In this post, we begin a short series to further address this topic and answer an even more important question: What should we do about it?
When students don’t cope well with the assessment process or struggle to use their communication tools to participate in the assessment, we are not testing their knowledge in a fair and equitable way. What we are really testing is a subset of their knowledge. We’re assessing their ability to demonstrate their knowledge using processes that they still struggle with.
What should we do to improve the ways we assess students who are still learning to use their AAC systems? One approach is to develop and implement a set of Fair Testing Practices (FTPs).
FTPs are a set of guidelines on how to test an individual student so that you are getting information on their knowledge & skills, not confounded by disability-related issues like fatigue, inattention, or difficulties with seating/positioning. For students who are learning to communicate with AAC, we can develop specific FTPs which acknowledge that learners are often less than competent with the AAC tools that they are using to demonstrate their knowledge, putting them at a great disadvantage and making it highly unlikely that they will be able to demonstrate all of what they know.
If you don’t know how to drive a car with a manual transmission, how fair would it be for us to make you take your driving test in a vehicle with a stick shift? Should not knowing how to drive a car with manual transmission prevent you from having a driver’s license?
Whether it is a car or an SGD, being a less than competent user of the equipment is going to significantly impact how we perform on the assessment.
So should we avoid testing until students are fully competent with their AAC systems? That’s not a prAACtical solution. For starters, we need to assess students so we know what they’ve learned and what we need to help them with.
Developing FTPs is best done as a team effort with input from the AAC user, family, therapists, educators, and any other key stakeholders who have something to contribute. There is no magic formula to what to include in the FTP, but it often makes sense to start with a broad array of guiding questions. In this post, we focus on helping teams shift to this approach and developing a process that leads to meaningful outcomes.
Getting Started with FTPs
Building a Case for FTPs: The idea of creating a set of guidelines that guide how a student can be tested is new to many teams. In those situations, it is helpful to begin with some discussion of the rationale for FTPs. The approach usually seems quite reasonable and appeals to our sense of fair-mindedness but it is useful to hold these discussions and ensure that everyone sees that the need for the FTP is valid and relevant. Understanding the ‘why’ helps to build a foundation for collaborative problem-solving.
Decide on a Process: Teams have different ways of making decisions, some of which are more robust than others. In developing FTPs, teams may find it useful to lay out how they will proceed with this task.
- Will the conversations be synchronous, ‘live’ discussions (either in-person or remotely), or asynchronous discussions using email, shared cloud documents, or some other method?
- How will the team ensure that all members contribute and that all contributions are valued?
- How will disagreements be handled?
- Where will the final outcome (i.e., the finished FTP) be documented?
- How will that be disseminated?
- When will the team re-visit the FTP to determine whether changes are needed?
In some cases, there are legal implications of the team’s decisions, so it is important to have team members who can also consider this in light of school, district, state, and federal policies and regulations. If the school district has an Assessment Coordinator, the team may want to have them involved at some point.
Identify the Types of Assessments
- Level of Assessment: Testing is done for many different reasons, and they vary in terms of their constraints. High stakes testing that is mandated by the state, for example, may have certain requirements regarding how the test is administered. Tests and quizzes for progress monitoring, on the other hand, offer more flexibility in test administration procedures. It is helpful for the team to look at this in advance in order to proactively plan for the supports that students will need in order to demonstrate what they actually know.
- In Shoshana’s case, the team knew that she would need her SGD and some other assistive technology (AT) so that she could demonstrate what she has learned in math when it came to end-of-year testing. Shoshana used those tools frequently throughout the year on quizzes, homework, and end-of-unit tests. This allowed her to gain proficiency with her AT in advance of using them in high stakes testing. In her state, if students are not using the AT for testing throughout the year, they are disallowed for statewide assessments. Her team’s advance planning allowed her to have access to these important supports when it came time for statewide testing.
- Methods of Assessment: As a team, identify all of the different ways that students with AAC needs may be assessed. This allows you to consider the problems each method presents and consider possible solutions. Typically, methods of assessment include things like:
- Computer-based tests and quizzes,
- Paper-based tests and quizzes,
- Performance-based tasks (e.g., sorting pictures or items based on certain characteristics, such as animals that give birth to live young vs those who lay eggs),
- Written products, such as reports, essays, and worksheets (both via computer and on paper),
- Products, such as a graphic organizer, collage, or video,
- Projects, and
While the team may decide to develop FTPs for all types of assessment, this series is focused specifically on tests and quizzes.
Brainstorm the Student-specific Issues: Students who use AAC have a wide range of characteristics and needs that may impact their performance in testing situations. Common areas to be addressed in FTPs include things like:
- Motor limitations,
- Sensory processing issues,
- Behavioral challenges,
- Difficulties with language comprehension, either in listening or in reading,
- Difficulties with hearing or vision,
- Limited reading and writing skills,
- Physical needs, such as needing to use the bathroom frequently,
- Problems with sustained attention, and
In some students, these issues remain fairly fixed throughout the day, week, and year. For others, these issues may crop up intermittently and be due to episodic events (e.g., seizures, change in medication, sleep problems).
Since many students who use AAC take medication, teams should also be aware of its impact on their overall functioning. Javonne’s team, for example, decided that they would not test him until two hours after he had taken a prescribed medication that impacts his level of alertness. They also agreed that he would not be tested on any day in which a fall or seizure occurred.
Teams should also consider any formal behavior plans and informal approaches to support students that are already in place or under discussion.
Including Students and Families: There are several rationales for including students who use AAC and their families in the decision-making for FTPs.
- First, it is likely to give us better outcomes. They know things that we do not. The more information we have, the better our FTPs will be.
- Secondly, it promotes buy-in. When we are included in the FTP development process, it builds our understanding of what these assessments are like and what it takes to engage in them successfully.
- Third, it demonstrates respect for the voice of AAC users when we seek out their input, facilitate their participation, and honor their preferences and perspectives.
- There is another important reason to do the work of ensuring that students who use AAC have a way to give input into this process: It is a form of self-advocacy. Being able to tell a group of professionals what works and doesn’t work is a powerful skill that will be helpful to many AAC users throughout their lifespan. Like other self-advocacy skills, it takes practice to build this skill set and this is a wonderful opportunity to facilitate that sort of growth.
Although students who use AAC and their families should be included in the IEP process to the greatest extent possible, this doesn’t always happen. If your team isn’t already seeking out their perspectives, this may be a good way to start.
“This makes sense, but I’m not sure where to go from here.”
Stay tuned. Future posts in this series will address specific guiding questions that teams can use in developing FTPs for their students who use AAC.
Do you have experiences with FTPs or other strategies that promote the fair assessment of students who use AAC? We’d love to hear about them.
Proctor, L. A., & Zangari, C. (2009). Language assessment for students who use AAC. In G. Soto & C. Zangari (Eds.), Practically speaking: Language, literacy, and academic development for students with AAC needs (pp. 47–70). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.
This post was written by Carole Zangari