By Audry Hite, Amazon Web Services; Christine Mills, PhD, Ascend Learning; and Michelle Nolin, CPTD, Learn Ethos LLC
As program providers begin to react to the increasing demand for accessible programs, including educational/training content and assessments, there are many questions left unanswered and exceptions to be unpacked. There are many resources and guidelines available to help drive accessibility across the web, but few that cover the nuances of implementing the principles of accessibility in the context of education and assessment. It is important to ensure your exam and educational programs are designed to guarantee equitable access. Considerations will vary by program type and offering, so it is crucial to partner with an accessibility specialist and design your offerings with accessibility in mind. In this article we present guidance, born from experience, on initial accessibility implementation considerations to start your journey.
Implementing Accessibility in a Learning Context
Accessibility within a learning context requires educational providers to consider the multiple domains of adult learning, including how content is presented (e.g., text, images, animations, video, tables), delivery modality (e.g., virtual classroom or face-to-face instructor-led training, asynchronous eLearning) and even the platforms and user interfaces from which content is offered to ensure compatibility with assistive devices and accessible functionality. Providers must also take into account, and consider, the many different types of disabilities that can impact learning: visual, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive, language, neurological and learning-specific disabilities such as dyslexia.
Accessibility features benefit all users. Standard accessibility guidelines for web content include synchronized captions for media objects, including animations and video, alternative text and contrast ratio for images, font size and display recommendations, and compatibility with assistive technology. Such features not only provide equitable access but boost comprehension, engagement and retention for all learners. The primary function of alternative text is that it allows the content of the image to be accessible to those using a screen reader. Guidelines for alternative text vary by context and purpose. For example, guidelines for images in an educational context should interpret the image, including only the most relevant content. For exams, alterative text should describe the image in its entirety to ensure the item is still able to test the appropriate competency.
The World Wide Web consortium(W3C) develops standards for web accessibility published as Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which have useful applications for learning content. These guidelines evolve and change over time to keep pace with technology and also define levels of conformance (e.g., A, AA and AAA). Employers, schools, associations and government entities may require compliance to a certain level. Like all standards, however, one should exceed, not simply meet, these guidelines, and be prepared to evolve methodologies over time.
While the guidelines are helpful, they also present challenges: compliance with the numerous success criteria is subjective, implementation cost (particularly a retrofit of existing content) and the trade-offs the criteria present between interactivity and accessibility.
Accreditation standards for educational content, such as the I.C.E. 1100 Standard for Assessment-based Certificate Programs, may also require accessibility, but typically stop short of prescribing a specific set of guidelines or approach. Like other aspects of the standards, accrediting bodies expect educational providers to follow accessibility guidelines as appropriate for the purpose, scope and intended audience of the program itself, in terms of both the educational content and the assessment(s).
Implementing Accessibility for Exam Development
Accessibility for exams can be divided into three main categories: process, software and content. Each requires careful planning and coordination to ensure that efforts made to increase accessibility do not alter the purpose or validity of the exam or place any candidate at a disadvantage. This section will focus on alternative text for exam content, which is only a small subset of the accessibility considerations for content, but one we found to be the least documented and most difficult to properly implement.
Accessibility guidelines, like those presented in WCAG 2.1, provide general best practices for features like alternative text, but offer less help in applying those guidelines in the context of standardized testing. Some guidelines are easy to understand and are straightforward in their application:
- Present the candidate with equal opportunity to demonstrate competency
- Do not interpret, but describe the image in its entirety so it is equal to the purpose of the image
- Do not include “picture of” or “image of”
- Use punctuation and perform the same editorial reviews, style reviews, and content validation, and localization reviews as other item content
- Limit word count to 250 words and match the intended complexity of the item objective
- Do not make the item more or less difficult for a candidate who is using a screen reader
- If the objective can be tested without an image, do not use an image
- Include users with disabilities and accessibility in acceptance criteria during development and launch
Other guidelines will require the development of internal policies and governance to ensure consistency and fairness:
- How will you ensure your alternative text is appropriate?
- Do any other test specifications, like time limit, need to be adjusted?
- Does the description of the image impact the candidate’s ability to answer the question?
- How will you measure the impact of alternative text to item performance?
- How consistent should your descriptions be?
- How will you ensure consistency across images describing the same thing?
- Will you need to create an image description (alternative text) glossary?
- Note: An example of an image description will be shared later as part of the case study.
- Alternate format items complicate accessibility. How will exam functionality need to change to make them accessible?
Remember that the goal is to ensure that candidates are given equitable opportunity to demonstrate competency while upholding the intent and validity of the exam. Users with disabilities should help inform program decisions that affect them, so be sure to have mechanisms in place to gather and take action on user and candidate feedback and identify gaps for further improvement.
Case Study on Alternative Text in Exam Development
When implementing accessibility into existing assessment programs, common questions that come to mind are, “Will the accommodation change what we are measuring and, if so, what is the right way to address the content?” What follows are questions one organization explored as they implemented alternate text.
The first question stakeholders asked was, “Did everyone have the same interpretation of the purpose of the context of the exam program?” The exam assessed students’ preparedness for a health care licensure exam. The licensure exam did not provide alternative text for items with images so the assumption, at first, was that the preparation exam should match the licensure exam experience for students.
After additional thought, stakeholders realized the answer was not that easy. The preparation exam was administered within a higher education. Mimicking the licensure exam was not a sufficient rationale to seek exemption from implementing accessibility features. This is because all students in an educational program should have access to all content and be able to demonstrate what they have learned.
A second question stakeholders asked was, “Were there blueprint tasks for which implementing alternate text would fundamentally change the intended measure?” This generated thoughtful discussion about the use of images and their purpose on the exam.
In some health care professions, readily reading an ECG waveform is a required job task. On the preparation exam there was an exam blueprint task which required students to interpret an ECG waveform. Alternative text for images on an exam should describe the image in its entirety and serve as a replacement for the image. In this case, the alternate item text that was drafted according to guidelines was hard to follow and increased students’ reading comprehension or listening comprehension substantially. (See Image 1 below.)
Stakeholders believed the alternate text changed the construct from interpreting a waveform to a reading comprehension or listening comprehension item, while also placing an undue burden on the candidate. Stakeholders determined that in cases where alternative text alters the construct being measured and the construct can only be measured using a visual cue, no alternative text would be provided. In such cases, the alternative text is replaced with a rationale explaining the absence of an image description.
The case study highlights the need for careful consideration when implementing accessibility features in an exam program and highlights the importance of considering accessibility during ideation, design and implementation. Accessibility needs will vary by program and require careful planning. It can seem daunting, but partnering with a certified accessibility specialist and investing in developing an accessibility audit and maturity plan for your program can make implementation manageable. By building a plan to address content and functionality over time, your implementation process will mature along with your team’s knowledge and understanding of what it takes to make a product accessible.