The Best Test for Kids with Motor and Sensory Disabilities

Even kids with severe disabilities need to demonstrate their learning through tests. As we look at creating low-stress tests to accommodate motor and sensory disabilities, what type of tests should we use? Does one style work better than others for these students?  Let’s talk more about the response style that has the best chance for supporting student success.
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You want your kids to score well on tests.

As a teacher, you work tirelessly to help your students learn content and critical skills. You want to be able to prove to the world just how successful your kids are despite their special needs! That means they need to score as high as possible on classroom tests. We all know that tests play a big role in shaping a child’s educational future. We want our kids to succeed!
Yet no matter how strongly dedicated teachers and parents are, physical challenges still interfere with our students’ abilities to show us what they know. We can’t make these physical problems go away; we have to find a way to work within the same limits our kids face every day.
One standard testing format outshines all the others for accommodating physical disabilities.

To help our kids perform their best on tests, we need to reduce the physical demands of answering test questions. Of the five standard response styles typically used in classroom assessments, one stands far ahead of the others in being accessible to students with severely limited motor skills.
·         Essay—This style of response requires that students generate a lengthy answer, letter-by-letter or word-by-word. For most students with severe motor impairments, essay responses are far too motor-intensive to be practical. Avoid essay questions as a method of testing.
·         Short answer—Students are expected to generate shorter answers, ranging in length from single words or phrases to a sentence or two. When motor disabilities challenge a student, even short answer responses may be too great a demand on physical output. Rather than expecting students to generate answers, short answer questions may be adapted to allow students to choose from a list of words, lessening the motor demand considerably.
·         Multiple choice—This format challenges students to select a response from a list of potential answers. Multiple choice tests are not as easily adapted as one might assume. If we ask students to hold 4-5 possible responses in their heads while they indicate the letter matching the correct response, we ask them to perform a huge memory task. This is a different skill than recalling the information we are trying to draw from our students. If you must use multiple choice tests, ALWAYS assign reminders for each answer choice directly on cards or switches rather than simply labeling them A,B, C, and D.
·         Matching—Matching tests typically ask students to pair items from one column with items in a second column. We might ask them to draw a line to connect the items or copy the letters or numbers that precede each item. Either of these response modes presents a great motor and visual challenge. Instead, print the choices off on colored paper (one color for the prompts and one for the matching choices) and cut them into cards. Students can arrange the matches in pairs on the table, reducing the motor and sensory complexity of this task.
·         True/false, yes/no (aka binary choice)—For kids with motor planning or sensory challenges, this testing strategy far outshines the other four we’ve talked about so far. With only TWO possible responses, this style makes the fewest demands on motor planning. It sharpens cognitive focus by reducing distractions. Think about all the distractions a child has to filter out with a matching or multiple choice task; having only two possible selections reduces this problem greatly. This format makes it easy to present one question at a time, whether by masking off a single question on a page or reading it out loud to the student.
Binary choice tests are bigger than just "true/false."

Test questions that can be answered by choosing from two responses are technically known as “binary choice.” The formats you are most familiar with are probably true/false and yes/no. Questions answered with these right/wrong responses have to be worded with tremendous care, which is a skill in its own right. Poorly worded questions confuse or mislead students. When children lack the verbal skills to ask for clarification, ambiguous wording sets them up for failure. If you need help to write clear questions, refer back to most any Educational Measurement textbook. Ebel and Frisbie’s Essentials of Educational Measurement or Popham’s Modern Educational Measurement are both excellent resources.
The great news is that binary choice options for testing extend past just true/false and yes/no questions. Information can be categorized into columns to clearly demonstrate mastery of the skill being tested. This format has been used in the literacy word with a high degree of success since the 1980’s under the name of “word sorts.” Fortunately for our kids, this sorting format extends to most content areas, varied levels of complexity, and all ages of students. It can be adapted using a wider variety of access methods than most styles of testing.
Sorts used to categorize words starting with /m/
I’m a huge fan of sorts as both a practice and a testing activity. I’ve used them quite often in my classrooms and at home with my motor-challenged daughter. Sorts tend to break down skills into definable increments, making assessments easier to create. I find they direct my instruction leading up to the test so that I focus more intentionally on the objective. I’ve successfully used sorts as an assessment for pre-literate students with autism who needed to have other types of tests given orally—yet whose echolalia interfered with their ability to say anything but the last answer choice they heard. Once they understood the process of sorting answer cards under category headings, they could demonstrate the target skill independently without any verbal input from adults. Their output was now under their control and no longer hampered by echolalia. Recently, my daughter sorted her Agricultural Science vocabulary under the headings of “lactation” and “reproduction” during their dairy unit, showing that sorts are appropriate even through high school.
If you will be testing your students this week, how might you adapt the test to support the motor challenges of your students? Is there a way to convert some of the more complex response styles into simpler binary choice questions? Please leave a comment to let us know how this worked for you this week. Or, feel free to ask for suggestions on how you might accomplish this.
Next week, let’s explore the many ways sorts can be adapted to meet the diverse motor and sensory challenges our kids bring to testing.
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Did you catch last week's post on reducing the stress of testing for students? If not, be sure to check it out here!

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