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The Role of Assistive Technology in Technology-based Assessments

Edtech is changing the way we run assessments in education. How do we get the benefit for all of our students equally? Learn from the experts.

January 5, 2024 by Amy Foxwell
The Role of Assistive Technology in Technology-based Assessments

A 2022 survey of U.S. undergraduates revealed a surprising trend: Only 5% of respondents said they use assistive technology (AT) to accommodate a disability.

When shown a list of AT, however, at least 18% called each tool “necessary.” For example, 20% of students said they rely on digital magnifiers. More than a quarter said they need text to speech (TTS).

If only 5% of these students have disabilities, AT must be spilling outside the bounds of its original use case.

As teachers and students learn to depend on edtech, the line blurs between “assistive technology” and the means by which all students learn, regardless of disability status.

But teachers don’t just teach. They must also measure the results of their teaching. Edtech is advancing faster than ever, and it’s introducing new questions about how we assess student progress:

  • How did the current state of assessment technology develop?
  • What types of assessment technologies should educators use?
  • Should we think of these tools primarily as accommodations, or is there an approach that supports all students, regardless of disability status?

We asked a panel of educators and edtech specialists these questions. Ultimately, we wanted to talk about who today’s assessment technologies are designed to help.

The answer—according to the principles of Universal Design for Learning—is everyone.

Defining the Technology-based Assessment

Before we can discuss edtech for assessments, we need to decide what we mean by “assessment.” Ginger Dewey, our Educational Development Manager, offers a pithy definition.

“An assessment, in education, is anything you grade. Assessments are not just tests. Assessments can be group work. They can be assignments. They can be research papers.”

If it helps you measure a student’s progress, it’s an assessment, Dewey says. That broadens the field of assessment technology well beyond Scantron sheets and number 2 pencils to include anything that contributes to student grades.

So today, a technology-based assessment is any graded task with a digital component—whether it’s an AI-assisted research paper or an online standardized test.

As we’ll see, this definition encompasses an increasingly wide range of teaching and learning tools.

5 Essential Technologies for Assessments in Education

All the experts we spoke to pointed to the COVID-19 pandemic as a powerful accelerator for the adoption of digital assessment tools.

“Before the pandemic, there was a pre-existing generalized move toward incorporating digital technologies into assessments, especially in the formative and low-stakes environments,” said Nina van der Behr of Learnosity. “But the adoption timeframe was lengthy.”

“The pandemic was like a shot of adrenalin for digital-based assessment, which could be conducted remotely to ensure safety during the outbreak.”

At the same time, edtech was advancing rapidly—especially given the emergence of commercial AI in the latter days of the pandemic. This confluence of events led to increasing use of assessment technologies of all sorts, from the earliest grades into higher education.

You might think of some of these assistive technologies, and others as general assessment tools. As we’ve mentioned, however, these categories are becoming less rigidly defined. If you’re considering assessment technology for your students, look closely at these five solutions:

1. Learning Management Systems (LMS)

These software applications are digital hubs for the whole learning process. They support everything from online delivery of classroom content to tracking student progress.

Learning management systems were prevalent prior to the pandemic, but became essential during lockdowns, with 70% of corporate learning and development departments in North America using them in 2020. They’ve stuck around ever since, said Kamil Rejent of Survicate.

“Many of the technologies that were rapidly adopted during the height of remote learning have not only persisted, but have become integral to the modern classroom.”

“Learning management systems like Moodle, Blackboard, and Canvas continue to be essential, serving as centralized platforms for assignments, grading, and feedback,” he said.

2. E-assessment Platforms

Educators are also relying on digital assessment systems outside the LMS, said Rejent.

“Online quizzing tools such as Kahoot! and Quizlet remain popular, offering an engaging way to assess student understanding,” he said. These learning platforms often gamify assessments, creating more engaging digital experiences for students. They also simplify delivery of assessment results for teachers.

Beyond LMSs, dedicated e-assessment platforms offer specialised functionalities such as advanced proctoring, sophisticated marking, and in-depth analytics.

As Bart Beemsterboer of Cirrus notes:

During the COVID-19 pandemic, they were crucial in enabling universities and professional testing organisations to continue high-stakes testing remotely. Platforms like Cirrus, offering integrated proctoring, plagiarism detection, and Linear On the Fly Testing, not only enhance the security and integrity of assessments but also ensure a flexible, equitable testing experience with assistive technology integrations like ReadSpeaker’s text-to-speech solution.

3. Digital Focus Tools

Digital focus tools include page masks, text enlargement tools, and distraction-free modes that remove images. Even a widget that lets users change fonts and colors can be a focus tool.

Digital assessments involve reading screens, and many students struggle to focus in this medium. They might have developmental disabilities, ADHD, dyslexia, anxiety, or common screen fatigue.

If assessments measure student progress, it’s crucial to define your learning goals and test for those goals specifically. That requires removing barriers to engagement with the material. Digital focus tools help these students understand assessment materials. That way, you can be sure you’re assessing your learning objectives—not the student’s current level of focus.

4. AI for Assessments

Artificial intelligence brings new capabilities to assessment technology. For example:

  • Middle-school teacher Valerie de la Rosa uses AI to help grade tests. “Our AI-based scoring system scores the test, then I check it for accuracy and leave comments for the students,” she said. “The technology allows me to save a lot of time.”
  • With AI analytics, educators can create personalized learning plans for individual students more easily. These tools also speed up the process, collecting student achievement data in real time. “We have the opportunity to leverage the capabilities of AI and data analysis on learner responses to help improve learner outcomes,” said van der Behr.
  • Generative AI will enable powerful new forms of simulation to assess skill training, predicted Dewey. “Say you’re a surgery tech student,” she said. “You can have a digital simulation of a surgeon asking for particular tools. If you pick up the wrong one, the AI asks you to explain why it’s the wrong tool, then show the correct choice.”

As AI continues to advance, new strengths and weaknesses will emerge. However the technology develops, it’s likely to change the way we handle assessments in education.

5. Text to Speech (TTS)

Even with the most advanced AI testing systems, however, students must be able to understand the content you place before them. Often, that requires an aural component. Two thirds of learners prefer a multimodal approach to their content—for instance, reading and listening at the same time.

Essential technology for assessments in education: Text to Speech (TTS).

Listening is also crucial for second-language learners, people with learning or developmental disabilities, struggling readers, and aural learners. Text-to-speech technology, which reads written text out loud, allows students to listen. It gives the individual a choice about how information is presented. That makes assessment content available to a broader range of learners.

Our panel agreed that every digital form of assessment should include an element of TTS.

  • “Unfortunately, approximately 40% of my students are currently reading three or more grades below level,” said de la Rosa. “To help these students, I find that TTS tools are essential.”
  • “Text to speech is extremely helpful for English-language learners,” said Rejent. “It can bridge comprehension gaps, assisting those proficient in spoken English but facing reading challenges.”
  • “At Learnosity, we partner with passionate providers like ReadSpeaker with their TTS offering that can help both learners who require accommodations, and those with a learning preference to listen over reading, or do both,” said van der Behr.

So should we still think of TTS as an accommodation, available to students with individualized education plans (IEPs), or should we offer it to everyone? According to the Universal Design for Learning framework, we can do both.

Assessment Technology for All: Universal Design for Learning

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an approach to teaching that emphasizes individualized experiences. Every student has different needs, UDL says. The only way to teach them all effectively is to offer multiple ways to engage with material—including assessments.

The UDL Guidelines ask educators to present lessons in a few ways at once. Let students choose to read, listen, or both, for example. What we traditionally think of as assistive technology is recast under this framework as one option among many.

Crucially, that avoids leaving behind students with disabilities. It also reduces stigma, breaking down the barrier between “disabled” and “non-disabled.” With UDL, we strive to provide the tools each student needs to meet learning goals.

Of course, technology-based assessments can absolutely be accommodations. But they don’t stop there. Edtech provides flexibility for every student, each of whom has a unique set of needs, preferences, and abilities. This technology is equally at home in summative assessments and diagnostic assessments, and provides an individualized way to evaluate student performance.

Text to Speech in Technology-based Assessments

However edtech develops going forward, TTS can help assess learning outcomes. Rather than testing a student’s reading skill alone, TTS helps educators get a true picture of student attainments.

How do we know? Because results for assessments in education have been shown to improve significantly when TTS is offered as a test-taking tool.

Text to Speech in Technology-based Assessments.

However, as our panelist Kamil Rejent said, “the effectiveness of TTS is contingent upon its quality.”

“Natural sounding TTS systems enhance the learner’s experience, while robotic tones can be distracting. Bad TTS isn’t of much use.”

ReadSpeaker offers natural, lifelike TTS voices in many languages, dialects, and speaking styles. We use proprietary machine learning models to ensure extraordinary quality, so your students can focus on the content.

Our TTS-powered reading, writing, and studying tools integrate natively into all major LMS platforms. They provide a seamless way to offer TTS in your digital testing environment, without the need for multiple apps or windows.

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