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Universal Design Applied to Large Scale Assessments

NCEO Synthesis Report 44

Published by the National Center on Educational Outcomes

Prepared by:
Sandra J. Thompson
Christopher J. Johnstone
Martha L. Thurlow

June 2002

Any or all portions of this document may be reproduced and distributed without prior permission, provided the source is cited as:

Thompson, S. J., Johnstone, C. J., & Thurlow, M. L. (2002). Universal design applied to large scale assessments (Synthesis Report 44). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes. Retrieved [today's date], from the World Wide Web: http://education.umn.edu/NCEO/OnlinePubs/Synthesis44.html


NCEO extends its sincere thanks to the following individuals who provided us with their reactions to this report. They provided comments reflecting their unique perspectives and made suggestions for changes that improved the report in a variety of ways.

Jamal Abedi, Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing (CRESST)
Karen Barton, CTB McGraw Hill
Betsy Case, Harcourt Educational Measurement
Lizanne DeStefano, University of Illinois
James Friedebach, Missouri Department of Education
Kevin McGrew, University of Minnesota
Edward Roeber, Measured Progress
Alan Sheinker, CTB McGraw Hill
American Printing House for the Blind
Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST)

In addition to the detailed input of these individuals, NCEO expresses special appreciation to its partners, Eileen Ahearn of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE) and John Olson of the Council for Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), for their input on ways to make the report better. As ever, gratitude is due to our OSEP Project Officer, Dave Malouf, who went the extra mile to remind us of the importance of this report as it went through revision after revision. While the concept of universally designed assessments is still a work in progress, we hope that this report will make the concept more concrete and will move the field forward in assuring that assessments are designed and developed from the beginning to be appropriate for the widest range of students in school today.

Executive Summary

Universal design is a concept that began in the field of architecture, but has been quickly expanding into environmental initiatives, recreation, the arts, health care, and now, education. Despite a slow but steady start in its application to instruction, the potential for dramatically affecting the design of large scale assessments is great. There is a tremendous push to expand national and state testing, and at the same time to require that assessment systems include all students – including those with disabilities and those with limited English proficiency—many of whom have not been included in these systems in the past. Rather than having to retrofit existing assessments to include these students (through the use of large numbers of accommodations or a variety of alternative assessments), new assessments can be designed and developed from the beginning to allow participation of the widest possible range of students, in a way that results in valid inferences about performance for all students who participate in the assessment.

The purpose of this paper is to explore the development of universal design and to consider its application to large scale assessments. Building on universal design principles presented by the Center for Universal Design, seven elements of universally designed assessments are identified and described in this paper. The seven elements are:

  1. Inclusive assessment population
  2. Precisely defined constructs
  3. Accessible, non-biased items
  4. Amendable to accommodations
  5. Simple, clear, and intuitive instructions and procedures
  6. Maximum readability and comprehensibility
  7. Maximum legibility

Each of the elements is explored in this paper. Numerous resources relevant to each of the elements are identified, with specific suggestions for ways in which assessments can be designed from the beginning to meet the needs of the widest range of students possible.

With the shift to standards-based reform during the past decade, valid assessments for measuring the achievement of all students are essential. There is no longer an option for test developers to ignore the possibilities that universal design can bring to truly inclusive assessment systems. States that release requests for proposals for their state assessments have a similar obligation—to ensure that any proposal from test developers meets criteria that reflect the elements of universal design highlighted in this paper.

Universal design opens the door to rethinking assessments—to ensure that the assessments themselves are not the barriers to improved learning. Universally designed assessments are a promising approach to providing appropriate assessment conditions for all students, giving each student a comparable opportunity to demonstrate achievement of the standards being tested.


Large scale assessments are used at local, state, and national levels to measure the progress of schools toward the achievement of educational standards. In this time of educational reform, testing programs are finding that to have accurate and fair measures of progress, all students must be included in the assessment system (Thurlow, Quenemoen, Thompson, & Lehr, 2001). Beyond simply including all students in assessments, there is a need to have their test performance be a valid and reliable measure of their knowledge and skills.

Questions have been raised about whether the administration, procedures, and format of these assessments provide optimal conditions for demonstrating achievement of academic content standards (Hanson, 1997). The standard administration procedures of current large scale assessments may have proven validity and reliability for many students. However, for many other students, standard administrations do not provide appropriate testing conditions, and may actually reduce access for some students, including those from varied cultural backgrounds, those with limited English proficiency, and those with disabilities ( Abedi, Leon, & Mirocha, 2001). Students without any special learning needs are just as likely as those with learning needs to have difficulty with unnecessarily confusing or complex formats or design.

The concept of universal design has been developing throughout the world, beginning in the field of architecture and expanding into environmental initiatives, recreation, the arts, health care, and education. A set of principles of universal design has been developed that traverses several of these fields and initiatives (Center for Universal Design, 1997). This paper proposes that assessments based on universal design principles offer a promising approach to providing optimal, standardized assessment conditions for all students, giving each student a comparable opportunity to demonstrate achievement of the standards being tested. The purpose of this paper is to explore the development of universal design and to consider its application to large scale assessments.