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..