Assessing Individuals With Disabilities: Ramifications of the Americans With Disabilities Act
Deborah W. Newsome, M.A.Ed., NCC
University of North Carolina at Greensboro
The Americans With Disabilities Act, a monumental piece of legislation, was passed in 1990 for the purpose of reducing discrimination and making everyday life more accessible to the over 43 million people in the United States with impairments. Under the ADA, it is discriminatory to use selection criteria that tend to screen out disabled individuals. Consequently, included in the legislation is the requirement that disabled individuals be assessed using "reasonable accommodations". This requirement has implications for all aspects of the assessment process, including test development, selection, administration, and interpretation (Fischer, 1994).
The goal of reasonable accommodation in testing is to level the playing field by making it possible for examinees with disabilities to understand and respond to what is being asked (Fischer, 1994). When accommodations are provided, efforts also must be made to insure that the test yields results that are valid, fair, and reliable.
Test developers and administrators have addressed the issue of accommodation in a number of ways. What constitutes a "reasonable accommodation" depends upon the nature of the disability and the circumstances of the assessment (Geisinger & Carlson, 1995). Two broad methods of accommodation include selecting alternative measures of assessment and modifying the measures that are already available (Smith, 1998).
Smith (1998) advocates the use of alternative measures that minimize the impaired skills whenever feasible. For example, in testing the reading comprehension of a student with expressive language problems, the examiner can consider which of the already-normed available tests measure comprehension without involving oral expression. An appropriate selection in this instance might be the Peabody Individual Achievement Test-Revised (PIAT- R). It is incumbent upon the examiner to be aware of the different instruments available to measure specific abilities (Smith, 1998).
When there are no alternative instruments, t e examiner must evaluate whether or not available measures can be modified to accommodate the individual's particular disability while still providing a valid measure of ability or skill. Modifications can be made in test format, time limits, and test content. A change in format refers to the use of a different medium or method to present the same information, such as large print, Braille, or audiotape. Changes in time limits often accompany changes in format, or may exist alone as a specific modification. Changes in test content can include changing individual test questions, changing the question-type, and changing or deleting the measurement of a specific knowledge, skill, or ability.
Professional judgment on a case-by-case basis is needed to determine the appropriateness of a specific accommodation (Fischer, 1994). When considering which modification to implement, the pros and cons should be evaluated, then the least intrusive or disruptive one selected. Examples of modifications that are less likely than others to affect the use of normative comparisons include: (a) providing larger type, (b) substituting Braille for written words when speed is not being measured, (c) using a pointing device to point to a response, and (d) using a word processor for tests measuring written expression (Smith, 1998). However, when any modification is made to a norm-referenced test, results should be interpreted cautiously, recognizing that modification can jeopardize validity.
If an individual with a disability is assessed under standardized conditions without modifications, professional judgment must again be used when- interpreting results. As stated in The American Counseling Association (ACA, 1995) Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice, counselors are to be "cautious in using assessment techniques, making evaluations, and interpreting the performance of populations not represented in the norm group on which an instrument was standardized" (P. 13). Thus, it is important to consider whether or not validation studies have been conducted using populations including individuals with the same disability.
Some of the documents providing guidelines for people who work with measurement and assessment are in the process of revision. In particular, new guidelines for assessing individuals with disabilities will be worded to insure compliance with ADA. Among those documents under construction or revision are the Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing, The Rights and Responsibilities of Test-Takers, and the Multicultural Assessment Standards: A Compilation for Counselors. Good assessment practice dictates being aware of current professional guidelines, exercising professional judgment, and demonstrating sensitivity to the challenge of insuring equity in assessment for all individuals, including those with disabilities.
American Counseling Association, (1995). Code of ethics and standards of practice. Alexandria, VA: Author.
Fischer, R. J. (1994). The Americans with Disabilities Act: Implications for measurement. Educational Measurement Issues, 13, 17-26.
Geisinger, K. F., & Carlson, J. F. (1995). Testing students with disabilities. (ERIC Digest Publication No. 39-1984). Greensboro, NC: ERIC Digest.
Smith, D. S., (1998, January). The process for assessing individuals with disabilities and making testing accommodations. Paper presented at the Assessment '98 Conference, St. Petersburg, FL.
May 3, 2001