PrAACtically Unfair: Why People with AAC Needs Sometimes Fail At Tests

November 29, 2012 by - 8 Comments

PrAACtically Unfair: Why People with AAC Needs Sometimes Fail At Tests
A- A+

What do these situations have in common?

  • Renting a car with a new GPS system to drive to an interview in a foreign city
  • Hosting a dinner party and cooking a gourmet meal in someone else’s kitchen
  • Using new software to deliver a presentation at a conference

If you said they all create anxiety, you’re right. But here’s something else: They all require you to do something unfamiliar or difficult and learn a new tool at the same time and produce results under stressful conditions.

We would never put our AAC learners under such stress and expect them to perform well, would we? Of course not!

Except when we:

  • Ask them to use an AAC device/app that they are still learning to answer test questions
  • Require them to use a new or exhausting motor pattern to produce a written product for grading
  • Expect students without sufficient test-taking skills to demonstrate their knowledge on quizzes 

If we think we are getting a valid picture of what students know in those situations, we’re fooling ourselves. Does this mean that we wouldn’t test them using their AAC tools? Would we wait until they master their AAC systems before using them in testing? Are we advocating that we refrain from assessment? Not at all. But what we are saying is this: When we test students on new/difficult material with tools/skills that are not yet mastered or are challenging for them to use, we are not truly assessing their knowledge. We’re assessing how well they can cope with difficult response options to express what they know.

We want to be clear here: We are not anti-assessment. In fact, assessment is a critical part of the teaching-learning process when the learner is sufficiently skilled in test-taking. For those students, assessment plays the vital role of revealing what they know and don’t know so that we can adjust our teaching. That lets us build on what they learned and reteach what they didn’t. For students who can participate in assessments in a typical fashion, the testing makes instruction better because it gives us insight into what they know.

But when kids don’t cope well with the assessment process or struggle to use the tools to participate in the assessment, we are not testing their knowledge in that same way. What we are testing is a sub-set of their knowledge. What we are testing is their ability to demonstrate their knowledge using processes that they still struggle with.Why Kids Who Use AAC Sometimes Fail at Tests

Here’s an analogy. Let’s say I’m assessing phonological awareness skills in a typically-developing 4 year old and I want to see how well the child understands the concept of rhyming. What would you say if I gave her a pencil and asked her to write 3 words that rhyme with hat? Ridiculous, but go with me on this. She would most likely give it a try, do some scribbling, and may even write some of the relevant letters. But do her marks on the paper really reveal what she knows about rhyming? Of course not. They tell us something about her writing skills. They may even give us the tiniest peek into her rhyming skills. But they in no way represent the true depth of her knowledge about word rhyming. Why? Because the method of communicating what she knows (writing) is something she is still learning. Testing her by asking her to write words is not a valid testing method for this 4 year old.

That’s what we’re dealing with when kids who are still learning about communication, language, and AAC are assessed. We may think we are testing their knowledge but that is not usually the case.

So, if assessment is important for planning instruction and we’re not getting valid results when we test AAC learners, what should we do? There are no easy answers to this question. Honestly, the issues could fill a book. We will write again on this topic but for now the take-away message is one of awareness. Help the team recognize the flaws in the assessment process so that they can do two things.

  • For the short term, be cautious about interpreting assessment results. Understand that what we are ‘getting’ from the student may not a valid indicator of their true ability level. Acknowledge that the student’s performance is filtered by having to express themselves in ways that are not yet mastered or which cause a level of fatigue unparalleled by their peers. Admit that our testing procedures may not be valid ways to tap into knowledge/skills for this particular student. When we know there are flaws in the process (unavoidable as they may be), we have to be extremely cautious in using the results for decision-making.
  • For the longer term: Work toward building a set of agreed-upon Fair Testing Practices (FTPs) for the student (see Proctor & Zangari, 2010 for more on FTPs). 

In the US, the pressure for assessment is more intense now than ever in the past. We don’t pretend to have all the answers, or even most of them. But we do know is that recognizing and acknowledging that a problem exists is the first step in solving it.


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.  

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Filed under:

Tagged With: , , ,

This post was written by Carole Zangari


  • Rose-Marie says:

    Excellent post, Carole! I also addressed the issue of testing kids with special needs just this week over at It’s nice to see you tackling with an AAC perspective here…it all dovetails nicely.

    I think your point that we need to make sure what we are truly measuring is the thing we intend to measure is such an important one. When our kids don’t have the language skills to clarify their intended outcome, it’s even that much more critical.

    Good stuff! I love your blog…keep up the good work!

    • Avatar photo Carole Zangari says:

      Thanks for the comment, Rose-Marie. Robin shared your link on our Facebook page so I got to read it the other day. Such awesome points! I’m really glad that this issue is getting some attention. I was visiting a school earlier this month where assessment pressures had really overwhelmed the team. It seemed to really shock them when we took some time to really think through what we were actually testing for the students who were still learning AAC. No easy answers but at least we’re talking through the issues and raising awareness about them. Really appreciate your comment, Rose-Marie. We’re big fans of your work!!

  • Bron says:

    Brilliant post and great information.

    • Avatar photo Carole Zangari says:

      Thanks for your kind words. Trying to find valid ways of figuring out what AAC learners really know can be a terribly frustrating situation for the teachers, therapists, and the kids, of course. I guess we just all have to keep working together to find solutions that make sense.

  • Joanne says:

    So happy I ran across this wonderful post. Looking forward to reading more about fair testing practices. Thanks Carole.

    • Avatar photo Carole Zangari says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Joanne! Testing is always such a tricky business – not my favorite thing, but if we have to do it, we want to do it right. 🙂

  • Danya Bryant says:

    My son is an accomplished AAC user in college. Even though he uses his device very well, testing is always a challenge for him. We need to remember that these people are being asked to do two cognitive functions at the same time, and the brain is not wired for that. They must constantly shift their attention from the question’s answer, to how to make this device say what they want it to say. They start out with an unfair situation, no matter how good they are with their device.

    • Avatar photo Carole Zangari says:

      Such a great point, Danya! Thanks for taking the time to add those thoughts to the conversaion.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.