How to meaningfully measure learning outcomes of learners with disabilities

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This blog was originally posted on, on March 5, 2024, by Aimee Reeves, School-to-School International, Kristina Solum, School-to-School International, and Drew Schmenner, School-to-School International

In India, a learner who is blind uses braille stimuli on a Marathi reading assessment.
In India, a learner who is blind uses braille stimuli on a Marathi reading assessment.
Credit: Kristina Solum/School-to-School International


Sustainable development goal 4 of providing learners with inclusive and equitable quality education requires us to measure how learners are progressing towards learning.

UNICEF further advances that governments must introduce inclusive testing and assessment to achieve truly inclusive education.

Coupling inclusive learning assessments with inclusive classroom instruction has the potential to improve the quality of education not just for learners with disabilities, but for all learners.

Over the past decades, we’ve made great progress in measuring early grade learning outcomes with regional school-based assessment tools (e.g. Programme d'analyse des systèmes éducatifs de la CONFEMENSouthern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational QualityPacific Islands Literacy and Numeracy Assessment), national and household-based assessments (e.g. USAID’s Early Grade Reading Assessment and Mathematics Assessment, the Annual Survey of EducationInternational Development and Early Learning Assessment) and national-level exams. Progress on including learners with disabilities in assessments has been mixed.

Although some donor-funded projects have recently adapted national and household-based assessments to include accommodations, a 2019 report from the World Bank showed learners with disabilities were partly or fully excluded from reading and mathematics sections of many regional assessments.

Schools have begun to include learners with disabilities in classrooms more meaningfully in line with Article 24 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), but it is just as important that their learning outcomes are validly and reliably measured.

If and how learners with disabilities are included in national-level exams and classroom-based formative assessments is not fully known.

What is inclusion in assessment?

Inclusive assessment means giving all learners equitable access to learning assessments and equitable opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge. When learners with disabilities take assessments that aren’t equitably designed, their results may not represent their true knowledge.

Because of this, we risk perpetuating stereotypes about these learners’ abilities to succeed in education and miss out on supporting them most appropriately in the classroom.

Inclusion in assessment also means providing reasonable accommodations that match the needs of learners with disabilities—a key requirement of UN CRPD Article 24.

Assessment accommodations remove barriers that impede a learner’s ability to access content and demonstrate their knowledge.

Accommodations do not make a test easier or harder. They can, however, provide changes to the way information is presented, how learners can respond, the settings in which the assessment takes place and the timing as well as scheduling of the assessment.

Although results on the impact of accommodations on assessment performance are mixed, research indicates that the inclusion of assessment accommodations can also impact learners’ perceptions: learners believe accommodations help them perform better and their teachers believe they help learners’ performance and self-esteem. These may help set the stage for learners to better demonstrate their knowledge on assessments.

What can we do to make assessments more inclusive?

1. Include people with disabilities more proactively and equitably in assessment design and implementation.

Including and empowering organizations of persons with disabilities to design and administer assessments in partnership with in-country and international assessment experts and government assessment officials is an important step. This collaboration can help ensure people with disabilities are centered in the process, reduce stigmas about them and foster advocacy and sustainability for inclusive education.

Having people with disabilities serve as assessors also strengthens in-country capacity and can even improve assessment administration.

2. Assessment design must incorporate principles of universal design.

Using universal design in learning assessments means making assessments usable by all people without the need for adaptation or specialization. Teachers have already begun to use these principles in their teaching practices through Universal Design for Learning.

Universal Design for Assessment (UDA) guides us to design assessments that are more equitably accessible to all learners right from the start, rather than adapt existing assessments. Although UDA is not yet widely used in international education, it has recently been piloted for the Early Grade Math Assessment in Central Asia.

3. Make classroom-based formative assessments more inclusive.

We should strengthen teachers’ skills in designing and using flexible formative assessments to highlight learners’ progress and gaps.

Empowering teachers to use universal and flexible classroom instruction and to apply those techniques to their classroom assessments gives them more agency and ability to adapt to the needs of their learners. Data collected on learners’ skills should be used to inform and improve their educational experiences.

4. Invest funding into making assessments more inclusive.

We must continue to do research on how best to design assessments so that they allow learners with disabilities the best chance to demonstrate what they know. This work must be prioritized to make meaningful progress on inclusive assessments, even when it requires extra funding and extra time.

When assessments don’t include learners with disabilities, education systems miss out on understanding what these learners know, what support they need and how activities such as inclusive education practices impact their learning outcomes.

Meaningful inclusion of learners with disabilities in assessment systems is needed if we hope to reach our goal of equitable quality education for all.

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