Recognizing and Overcoming Test Bias Against Students Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired

We are very pleased to welcome Shelley Homsy, a teacher of students who are visually impaired at the New York Institute for Special Education, as a guest blogger on the subject of test biases, and how to tackle them.

by Shelley Homsy, TVI
The New York Institute for Special Education

Students often ask, “Why do they make these questions so hard to understand?”

Bias against visually impaired and blind students in testing is a great concern to those involved with their education. These biases can cause extreme anxiety, distractibility, and in many cases, low test scores for our children. Translating visual images into braille is not reliable. We need to be confident that the tests provide a fair and accurate measure of our children’s competency in a subject area.

Teachers of students who are blind or visually impaired (TVIs) are familiar with the individual needs of their students and are aware of the discrepancies in these high-stakes tests. Recognizing some of the most common biases is the first step in identifying possible solutions.

Something as basic as formats, for example, can cause a bias. Think of the staple placement in the top left corner of a large-print edition. Students need to look at charts, graphs, maps, and cartoons and refer back to them while reading the related questions. If using a CCTV, the student begins to find this juggling of pages cumbersome, awkward, frustrating, and time consuming. Confusion and distraction may result in the student not giving the question the undivided attention needed to respond correctly.

A simple solution for this staple-placement situation is to place staples of the large-print editions along the spine side of the test. It is easier to manipulate the test when it is in book-like form. Now the graphics and the accompanying question can be in close proximity to each other.

Confusion caused by drawings with dark shading, inadequate contrast, and words written on the background can all be described as “Too Much Noise”: too much visual information and clutter. Graphs and charts of lines and columns and long lines of numbers can cause students eye fatigue. Students complain that looking at various patterns make their eyes “jump” when they glance at line patterns.

When your child is faced with too much information on a page, encourage him to be resourceful and creative. A possible strategy is for the student to make a “window” out of paper. Only the problem or question the student is working on should be exposed. Everything else on the page is covered. Small bits of information at a time may just be what it takes to filter out the “noise.”

You can reinforce these activities at home, as well. It is important for your child to know that she can take control of her environment and that she can even make recommendations to her TVI as to what works or doesn’t work for her.

Remind your child to ask the right questions. Self determination is an essential element in the Expanded Core Curriculum. Assure him that he could very well ask his teacher or proctor of the test to help fold or re-staple the book even if the teacher doesn’t offer. Raise your child to always be prepared to ask for help, as most people don’t really know that there is a problem.

Another example of your child soliciting help is when she hands in her work at the end of the test. Encourage your child to ask the teacher to please check over her paper to see that everything is filled in. This is especially necessary for the low vision student, as she may have skipped a question and not noticed it.

The Braille Authority of North America (BANA) has been working relentlessly to help with standardization. It publishes rules, codes, and formats for braille. It has just received approval and adoption of the long-anticipated Guidelines and Standards for Tactile Graphics.

Tactile Graphics are used by braille readers to obtain information that print readers get from visual pictures. They’ll need to be taught and experienced at an early age. The interpretation and reading of a tactile graphic is a skill that must be taught to a braille reader. Remember, students who are blind or visually impaired gather information differently than sighted students.

Prepare your children not to be defenseless in the testing process. They need to understand how to address these discrepancies and advocate for themselves, instead of just accepting them as how things are supposed to be. They should inform their teacher when they believe they are at a disadvantage. It may not be obvious to the teacher or even the parent.

We do not expect different or “watered down” standards for the visually impaired student. Fairness is what our blind and visually impaired children are entitled to, so that they will have the same opportunity as their sighted peers to demonstrate their achievements.