Testing, 1, 2, 3 …

The other week I was typing math tests, generally a task as dull as dusting door lintels. But this time I was enthused because I was re-typing the tests in order to make them more accessible.

You see, the old tests were done in a small 10-point font, with the arithmetic problems set up in the traditional manner of stacking them in long columns and aligned rows. Many of our students have a variety of learning disabilities, and I suspected the very layout of the tests was aggravating some of the visual and/or graphomotor difficulties.

Firstly I increased the numerals to a 14-point font. This is much closer to natural handwriting size, so it’s easier for the students to write their own numbers under the columns of existing digits. For dysgraphic students, anything that gives them more room to write is beneficial. Therefore I also increased the amount of space between the problems, both within the rows and between them. This way there would be sufficient room for working out the calculations, especially the long division problems.

Another reason for giving extra room between the rows was that I wanted to avoid making the students squeeze their answers around smudged calculations. Nor did I want to have them transfer their answers to a separate page, which could incur errors involving number transpositions, correspondence between the problem and its specifically numbered answer blank, or some of the answers not even getting transferred over.

Next I put the problem numbers (enumeration) on different lines than the problems, so there would be less confusion about which was which. In contrast, the operations signs (plus, minus, multiply or divide) were moved closer to the problems to reduce any confusion about what the student was to do.

Another important step was to arrange the individual problems so they were not stacked directly above and below each other. This reduces some of the spatially-related difficulties some students have, and prevents confusion about which number is involved in a given problem. It’s too easy to pick up the wrong number or even skip a problem when all the digits are piled up in long wriggling stacks. Offsetting the problems helps isolate each one in a larger area of white-space.

The combination of offset problems plus using a larger font resulted in using two rows for five problems, rather than just one row. In turn, the tests usually grew longer by a page. I don’t consider that to be a problem; there’s a time for “saving trees” (conserving paper) and a time when that is a false economy because it creates other problems. When photocopying the tests, I did not copy on both front and back. It’s too easy to miss a chunk of problems on a test when they are “hidden” on the back. Plus, having blank page backs automatically gives blank space for any additional little calculations that the students need to do.

These mathematics tests don’t have much in the way of worded questions, although for those that were included, I doubled the length of the answer blanks so they would be roomy enough for handwritten responses.

When laying out tests with worded questions, there are some other techniques that can make test-taking less difficult on the practical end. Many things are good common sense, but we have to be aware of them to be sure of including them. These include methods such as:

• In matching questions, have the descriptions in column one and terms in column two on the same page (no run-ons to another page);
• Use numbers for one column in the matching and letters for the other column;
• Spell out the words True – False to be circled (rather than the student writing T or F or t or f and letting the grader guess which was written down);
• Avoid the use of double-negatives in true-false or multiple-choice questions;
• Use capitals in matching or multiple choice (A, B, C, D, E) instead of lower case (a, b, c, d, e) that can be confusing to the student or to the grader (a – d, b – d, or c – e can look similar), and be sure to give a blank to write the answer upon.

(As you might guess, this particular grader has her own difficulties reading small font sizes, visually tracking numbers, or sometimes distinguishing certain letters.)

The benefit to all these various techniques is that they help all the students, not only those who have particular disabilities that have been diagnosed and for whom accommodations have been established. Other students who have undiagnosed problems, marginal problems, those who are simply tired or sick, and even those in top form will all benefit from having tests that are easier to read. (Ditto the teaching staff!)

This is the joy of universal design for learning: make as much of the material as accommodating as possible for a wide group of students, and you will have fewer specific changes to make for individual students, plus everyone will be able to use the material more easily.

After all, our end goal is to assess the students’ acquisition of knowledge, not their ability to decipher tests..


  1. David N. Andrews MEd (graduating Dec2006) said,

    31 October 2006 at 20:43

    Ed: “Pavlovian parrot, thats a good one! Glad to see I was right about that one. He seems to serve as an endless source for your extended vocabulary. He asks for it though. Might I add that when it comes to that breed of bird, you know best. : )”

    Yeh… I’ve observed his behaviour as much as the net allows, and I’m actually pleased to find that he is so bleeding simple that he is actually that programmable; his insane drivel and pernicious bile are so predictable now… he’s gotten boring. But the Pavlovian parrot thing… that’s him down to the ground, don’t you think?! :)

    People whose brains fell out and were replaced with shite tell him crap ‘science’, and he repeats this garbage, absolutely on cue.

    Skinner’s operant conditioning has some entertaining uses, no? ;)

  2. qw88nb88 said,

    28 October 2006 at 7:56

    Ed, don’t delude yourself about having the equivalent of an elementary school education — you have obviously been soaking up all manner of things over the years (in whatever manner works best for you), and applying your native wit to understanding the world. Doubtless your knowledge base is erratic, but that is not the same thing as being entirely lacking!

    Keep that dictionary next to the computer; I for one am prone to using exercising my vocabulary. In turn, DO let me know when I’m not making sense to you — this is true for EVERYONE reading my blogposts.

    • Cansu said,

      31 January 2012 at 18:28

      Experts like Dr. Tony Attwood have long miaetiannd that punishment doesn’t work and is inappropriate for kids with autism, but most teachers just aren’t trained in best practices, the US is way behind the curve. Sounds like Nigeria is even further behind, which is difficult to grasp.Thanks for writing…

  3. Ed said,

    28 October 2006 at 5:42

    Pavlovian: Refering to Pavlovs dogs. Pavlov described his veiws about conditioned responses based on his experiments using dogs.
    Just so you know, if there was something here that I obviously missed, Im open to being told by you or Andrea. Some things that you both wrote will probably dawn on me later.
    Pavlovian parrot, thats a good one! Glad to see I was right about that one. He seems to serve as an endless source for your extended vocabulary. He asks for it though. Might I add that when it comes to that breed of bird, you know best. : )

  4. David N. Andrews MEd (graduating Dec2006) said,

    28 October 2006 at 0:50

    Ed: “Since when did you run out of names to call him? Seems to me like youre just getting started!”

    Heh, yeh :P

    Problem with him is that he’s a bit of a Pavlovian parrot, really… he can be conditioned very well, but it’s very much a repeating-what-others-have-called-him type of thing. Does mean that you can tell exactly what his response is going to be to anything that gets said… to anybody :P

  5. Ed said,

    27 October 2006 at 21:10

    Back to the dictionary. Im learning. Youre helping. If there is a difference between a post and a point, I hope I made a point. Me being a learner is more of an ongoing point and I hope that my being loquacious was done in a way that was seen as productive.

  6. qw88nb88 said,

    27 October 2006 at 20:02

    “spam” of the sort seen on fora (forums) is analogous to junk mail (not to be confused with Spam the pork meat product in tins):

    Assuming one is making a point, being loquacious is not something for which I would fault others, especially considering my own wordy qualities …

    As for the head cold, this too shall pass. Tomorrow is the first Saturday in months that I won’t be working (or traveling) and can finally Sleep In!

  7. Ed said,

    27 October 2006 at 18:37

    No, not at all. My point really wasnt in contradiction to anything you said at all.
    I get caught up in saying too much but then sometimes I say too little. If people dont know about why Im bringing up a point, sometimes they completly misunderstand where Im coming from. Then I get frustrated trying to explain.
    I agree with everything youve said.I dont even know what spam is but Im quite sure you wont get any of it from me.
    I was meaning to supportive. Ive just got to learn better ways to do that.
    So Ill try to be respectful in making points and learn to exit more gracefully and earlier. My next lesson in blogging/comments etc. is to learn to do that with less words.
    Sorry about your cold. Hope youre feeling better.

  8. qw88nb88 said,

    27 October 2006 at 15:46

    Ed, did you feel that I had missed responding to a question? I have a head cold and not been sleeping well this past week, so it is entirely possible that I may have missed it.

    Don’t worry; I think your posts are rather clear. And I always welcome comments and discussion on my blog (spam excepting, of course).

  9. Ed said,

    27 October 2006 at 12:45

    Afterthoght: And oh yeah, Andrea, what you explained was helpful. Thanks.
    And David: Nameless? Since when did you run out of names to call him? Seems to me like youre just getting started! I have to look some of them up but they all seem appropriate. I just think of that as part of ongoing vocabulary lesson. : 0

  10. Ed said,

    27 October 2006 at 10:41

    My hope was really to be supportive in what I see your efforts to be. While I cant begin to understand all that you described about testing, what I did understand makes me even more glad that you are doing the work that you are. If I wasnt clear about it before, please understand that I REALLY appreciate the work you are doing. It helps everyone.
    My mother is a special edUCATION teacher. She works very hard at helping other parents and teachers understand that just because a kid cant do one thing doesnt mean they may not be good at something else, and it is vitally important to find out what they ARE good at. Anyone who knows her story and about me, knows why she feels so strongly about that.

    Also this is your blog page and everybody does it differently….so….I hope I dont go on too long. Ill try to respect what you do and dont want discussed. Im dying for a place to discuss this. Its vitally important to my future and I think my my example can really help others. Actually Im quite certain of that.
    As always, thanks so much. Again, you sent me to the dictionary. I had to look up germane. At first I was going to tell you that Im actually more english on my mothers side : )
    My situation is this:
    1) Im 43, recently married, and I have not much more than an elementary school education. There are lots of reasons for my lack of education but none of them include my lack of desire. Having been recently married Ive never been so motivated to overcome my disability label. There is no way that the system will not continue to be challenged by me. I have never thought that that was a bad thing and I certainly dont now. If they were half as eager to meet the challange as I am, Id have more than a fighting chance. Ill make either way.
    2) Besides a very obvious genetic connection to autism on my fathers side, I was born with onoxia that that started the doctors labels of me as brain injury, spastic/ cerebral palsy, etc. There are some aspects of those labels that fit me. My inherent clumbsiness led to other brain injuries throughout the years. Ive been in mental institutions alot of my adult life when I would have rather been getting educated. Whatever….Ive got a chance now. I also have some kind of seizure disorder that seems to be getting worse and I desperately need to get educated about that. ( Im going to get some comprehensive test soon that will help that make better sense.)
    2)My wife and my mother actually help me alot with my blogging and comments. It scares me alot. I really appreciate the encouragement.
    3) I have often said that I cant do this or that but not nealy as often as Ive tried things that seemed impossible to me. Sometimes trying brought good results eventually. Often it did not. I never wanted pity but I also didnt want to be seen as aborant when I was really trying. All Ive really ever wanted was an opportunity to express what I really AM good at. (See, Andrea thats what I see you and David doing for kids…. that helps even old kids like me.)

    Now the next step is to make sure that people who have diverse talents and skills that these test show, enter a world where there are markets for the talents and skills that have been discovered. Anybody interested in that stuff, just ask me. PLEASE ASK ME : ) : ) : ) : ) !!!! l have SOOOOOO much information and ideas about that, that somebody who asks wont eventually be saying autistic speak. They will eventually be saying to me, autistic, SHUT UP! Or just Ed, shut up. People actually getting what I say and not needing me to explain any more….Im looking forward to that day.
    4) I hope that you guys(and gals) know how revolutionary what you are doing is. What I see you doing(besides other things) is showing how diverse expressions such as those expressed by autistics are more valid than previously thought( by your own expressions and the ones you see in others). These pages are where I come for that kind of education and encouragment. Do you get it? This kind of stuff is scarcely available anywhere. I hope you all know how much what youre doing is appreciated.

    Now soon, someone from the DDSN in my state is going to come and help me with my blogging (among other things) and I going get a REAL blog and everything. Im going to show them these pages where Im learning and who knows, THEY MAY LEARN SOMETHING TOO.

    Now, my mother helped me with this comment over the phone. My wife keeps telling me to quit saying so much about myself when commenting on others blog pages. I may wait a while before telling her about this one. : )
    Thanks, Ed

  11. David N. Andrews MEd (graduating Dec2006) said,

    27 October 2006 at 6:50

    Hi Andrea…

    “That sounds very interesting; in what kinds of ways do you distinguish between different kinds of issues? (I’m thinking of my student mentioned earlier in the “Dividing We Stand” post.)”

    I’ll explain it more in a less public forum, since this test could actually be compromised by the idea being discussed in public.

    Hi Ed…

    Oh boy, do you cover some interesting issues on the topic of testing?!

    “I hope I have something to offer here as well as something I can learn.”

    Well, to be honest… you do. This will become clearer as I respond to things you posted.

    “With that said, Ive always scored low on every test and Im seeking an education and a vocation much later in life than most people.”

    And here it is.

    Having seen your posts on a number of blogs, and assuming that you do it yourself (just making sure that you know that this is my assumption; many uncharitable individuals would no doubt take a more objectionable stance on this), I get the impression that you are not being served well by the tests that have been administered to you. There is evidence of reasoning ability, and you can construct sensible sentences (one person in the north east of the US, who shall remain nameless posts diatribe that would suggest he possesses neither ability). You also demonstrate an ability to raise questions about the usefulness of some particular concept/approach, and this can only be good: when people blindly accept some approach, without thinking it through properly and without asking questions of the approach, then usually the result is not good. The notion of ‘overinclusivity’ is a case in point. This question is particularly germane: “I mean could the system at large feel that if of too many diverse people do well on test that show them as having strengths, they would then be afraid that they will be unable to find jobs for these “extra” people?”.

    This is an issue relating really to standardised norm-referenced testing. This is the sort of test that grades people under the normal distribution curve (which, in case you don’t about this curve, is a curve that describes an ‘ideal’ distribution of scores). The curve is also known as a ‘bell curve’ because it looks a bit like a vertically-challenged bell. It describes on its vertical axis the frequencies of various results mapped along its horizontal axis, and has a peak of frequencies in the middle, with both ends trailing off towards – but never reaching – a zero frequency count. The curve has an area under it, which relates to the percentage of the population for which the test was designed and, the further a score is to the right-hand end, the higher the percentile ranking of the score is. These types of scores show only how one person’s performance relates to the overall set of performances of a group generally, without actually giving any idea of how well that person has actually done in terms of meeting any given set of criteria. For this, a different sort of test is needed: a criterion-referenced test. Andrea has rather ably clarified this sort of test so there’s no need for me to elaborate on them. Needless to say, I suspect that the sorts of test on which you score low would be norm-referenced tests. And I can readily see a number of possible contributors to this phenomenon.

    First, the issue of test anxiety… how anxious you may feel about the test, given that most people go into a test situation quite naïve to the process they are about to go through. Some people are more susceptible to their own emotional responses to events/objects than others, and you may well be such a person. An examiner who failed to acknowledge such an issue would make an error that could lead to being declared incompetent.

    Second, the issue of you being given sufficient time to understand the instructions given to you… not all people understand seemingly instantly, and so this has to be taken into account by the practitioner concerned when the test is administered, and a way of circumventing difficulties should be sought prior to the administration of the test. If, for example, the issue was about remembering a chain of instructions that you needed to remember for a particular task and you have a short-term/working memory problem, a competent examiner would write the instructions down and allow to refer to them during the test.

    I have to go now to a school to do an assessment. More later.

  12. qw88nb88 said,

    26 October 2006 at 21:29

    Ed, we have to consider what the purpose is behind testing.

    Teaching and testing should not be about “weeding out” students, but rather about being able to check how well the students are learning the material. See “My Top Myths In Teaching”:
    We cannot have “too many” competant people! We want as many people to be as competant as possible, to improve their lives and what they are able to achieve. Success should not be considered a commodity in limited supply. This is why “grading on the curve” can be hazardous — for some to do well, others must do poorly.

    There is nothing wrong with a test describing people as “competant” if indeed they do have the knowledge and skills that the test is supposed to be assessing! In truth, we want everyone to learn — that’s the whole point of schooling.

    The real concerns are whether the tests are accurate at giving some kind of meaningful measure, and if the method of testing does not create additional or exceptional problems for the students and their abilities to demonstrate what they’ve learned.

    Accommodations are not about giving disabled students “extra” advantages over their nondisabled peers, but rather about levelling the playing field so they are able to approach the materials without extra problems that others don’t have.

  13. Ed said,

    26 October 2006 at 6:14

    I hope I have something to offer here as well as something I can learn.
    My diagnosis(s) is complicated. I know I must be careful in how I describe myself and how much I say about myself. Im working on that.
    With that said, Ive always scored low on every test and Im seeking an education and a vocation much later in life than most people.
    Im very inspired by people like David Andrews. He has worked hard and done well and Im sure hes a real help to many. Im glad he is creating more test that will show the skills of more people.
    Here is my question: Does the educational system feel that there is any danger in creating too many test that will then describe too many people as compotent? I mean could the system at large feel that if of too many diverse people do well on test that show them as having strengths, they would then be afraid that they will be unable to find jobs for these “extra” people?
    By being TOO inclusive in this way the educational system might look bad?
    I know that is more than one question. Id appreciate any ideas.

  14. qw88nb88 said,

    26 October 2006 at 5:56

    That sounds very interesting; in what kinds of ways do you distinguish between different kinds of issues? (I’m thinking of my student mentioned earlier in the “Dividing We Stand” post.)

  15. David N. Andrews MEd (graduating Dec2006) said,

    26 October 2006 at 0:37

    “After all, our end goal is to assess the students’ acquisition of knowledge, not their ability to decipher tests..”

    All too often, that actually does seem to be the end goal.

    I’m currently designing an educational assessment package, assessing actual skills. It covers mathematical-arithmetical skills (+,-,x,÷) at four levels of complexity, reading (accuracy, fluency and comprehension) and writing (clarity, speed, dictation and copying), and it’s intended for 1st to 3rd years in a Finnish school system. It’s an criterion-referenced ipsative assessment – measuring only in relation to what the student can do, and the purpose is to identify skills variation that could be indicative of problems of mismatch to curriculum.

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