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Practices in Universal Design

CAST (Center for Applied Special Technology)
This web site contains information, research, and resources pertaining to Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

Universal Design originated as a way to design and conceptualize physical structures inclusive of all individuals, without respect to disability status, background, or learning style. In addition to increased access, another goal is to improve efficiency, flexibility, and ease in all aspects of product use. According to Dolan and Hall (2001), schools have made progress in improving physical access for students with disabilities, but they have neglected opportunities to increase these students’ access to alternative learning materials and teaching methods that promote their learning.

Non-text based alternatives are needed to provide accessible instruction and to evaluate students with disabilities and other diverse learners. CAST summarizes four ways in which UDL has shifted perspectives in general about the learning process:

  • Students with disabilities fall along a continuum of learner differences, rather than constituting a separate category.
  • Teacher adjustments for learner differences should be made for all students, not just those with disabilities.
  • Curriculum materials should be varied and diverse, including digital and online resources, rather than centering on a single textbook.
  • Curriculum should be made flexible to accommodate learner differences.

NCEO Special Topic Area: Universally Designed Assessments
This site contains a series of frequently asked questions and online resources on assessments that are "designed and developed from the beginning to be accessible and valid for the widest range of students, including students with disabilities and students with limited English proficiency."

The National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) describes ways that universal design principles are incorporated into test construction and development, resulting in assessments that are "designed and developed from the beginning to be accessible and valid for the widest range of students, including students with disabilities and students with limited English proficiency" (according to NCEO’s Web site). Again, according to NCEO’s Web site, the end result benefits all learners by:

  • Accommodating the full range of performance, and avoiding floor and ceiling effects in which the dependent variable is measured at the bottom or top of the scale, respectively.
  • Focusing on testing core concepts by minimizing extraneous features (e.g., complex vocabulary or confusing graphics).
  • Reducing the need for different forms, booklets, or assessments.
  • Providing better information on the performance of all students through assessments that are designed to accommodate a full range of test performance, etc.

Practices in High Stakes Testing

American Educational Research Association (AERA) Position Statement Concerning High Stakes Testing in Pre K-12 Education (2000)
This position statement is based on the 1999 Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing. The statement serves as a "guide and a caution to policymakers, testing professionals, and test users involved in high-stakes testing programs."

Popham, J. (2001). Teaching to the test? Educational Leadership, 58(6).

High stakes testing refers to the use of a single test in making decisions for graduation, grade promotion, course grades or credit, or other important classification purposes. This practice is a serious misuse of diagnostic assessments, according to the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). Teachers held accountable for student results on these tests are increasingly preparing students for accountability exams using actual, or similar, "clone" items from the exams themselves.

Popham (2001) differentiates between curriculum-teaching (e.g., teaching knowledge or skills representing the cognitive skills assessed by the exam) versus item-teaching (e.g., using actual test items in classroom instructions or quizzes). Item-teaching (or "teaching to the test") makes it harder to interpret the validity of assessment results. Popham (2001) states that teaching to the test, while hard to detect, can be deterred through:

  1. Assessment literacy, or educating teachers about the pitfalls and costs of this practice, and
  2. Using tests with clearly defined instructional goals that help teachers align their curricula with the test objectives, thus shifting the focus from teaching to the test to teaching to the content standard. In other words, classroom instruction matches state performance standards and associated benchmarks.

Others in the field, such as the NCTM, have criticized the misuse of high stakes tests and their negative effects on instructional integrity. NCTM's position statement ( recommends the following:

  • Multiple sources of assessment information should be used when making high-stakes decisions. No single high-stakes test should be used for making decisions about the tracking, promotion, or graduation of individual children.
  • If tests are one measure in making decisions, they must be valid and reliable, measure what was taught, and provide multiple opportunities to demonstrate proficiency.
  • Tests also must provide appropriate accommodations for students with special needs or limited English proficiency.
  • Instruction and curriculum should be considered equally in judging a program’s quality.
  • Assessment should advance students' learning and teachers' instructional decisions.

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This page was last updated on November 29, 2017.