What is current practice?

Exams are typically created by instructors who are specialists in their disciplines but not specialists in assessment design. Often exams are initially created with just a hunch as to how long the exam will take to complete. Length of the exam may be adjusted if too many students have trouble completing it during the course period. Exams are usually provided in class on paper and pencil, but also sometimes provided online.

A pencil rests on a circle on a bubble sheet

Discussions about accommodations for exams usually center around the student’s condition or limitations. The rhetoric is often something like: students with x disability qualify for y accommodations, where y sometimes equals extended time on exams. It is communicated in terms of something students “get.” In order to receive accommodations, students must register with the disability services office, acquire and bring documentation, complete forms to request accommodated testing, plan well in advance of the exams, and in some cases coordinate logistics.

Disability service offices struggle to find appropriate test locations, spend extensive time coordinating accommodations and struggle to make arrangements with faculty/instructors who sometimes have little patience with staff intervening in their student assessment and express concerns about the security of the test and the testing environment. Students often are placed in awkward locations in order to receive their exam accommodations. They often have no access to the instructor during the exam to ask questions and miss out on hearing questions asked by their peers that might be of benefit to them as they take the exam.

Common accommodations for exams include:

  • Extended test (time and a half or double time)
  • Reduced-distraction testing area
  • Exams in alternate formats (large print, Braille, digital)
  • Use of a laptop and/or assistive technology 

What are the implicit messages?

  • Disabled students are less capable and cannot complete exams without special assistance.
  • It is appropriate that disabled students jump through additional hoops in order to have access.
  • It is appropriate that students test in a separate location and have no opportunity to ask questions during exams because they are the ones who want to be treated differently.
  • Disabled students are likely to cheat and must be carefully proctored.
  • Disabled students are irresponsible if they do not complete all the paperwork by required deadlines. 
  • The “problem of access” is a consequence of disability rather than reflective of poor test design that may not be effective in measuring learning.
  • Accommodations give students an unfair advantage and thus students with extended time have not really achieved as much as their peers who take tests without those accommodations.

How might it be different?

An inclusive approach to test accommodations locates the problem with the design of the exam while responding to the reality that few course instructors will be willing or able to fully modify their student assessment strategies. This challenges the disability resource office to collaborate with faculty to balance re-design with accommodation. 

When tests are to be taken outside of the classroom, faculty members understand that accommodations are required because their test has failed at its most basic level: it does not provide an accurate measure of learning for all students. The student experience in testing is as similar as possible to the experience of nondisabled students. Minimal extra effort is required of students, and faculty actively participate in accommodation delivery to ensure that they get a good measure of student achievement. 


The goal of student assessment is to measure what students have learned. However, traditional assessment methods may limit the opportunity that many disabled students have to demonstrate their knowledge and skills. As a result these tests give inaccurate information on how effective you’ve been as an instructor and how successful your students have been as learners.

Consider ways to assess your students’ learning that are effective for all students. While there are many creative strategies that minimize the need for individual accommodations, the following are a few options that may fit for your class and instructional style:

  • Administer tests and quizzes using a course management system where you can design untimed tests or build extended test time into the schedule for disabled students.
  • Build in extended test time by decreasing the length of your test for all students but allow the whole class period for students to take the test.
  • Use take-home exams to assess applied concepts.
  • Use group projects to both assess learning and encourage the development of collaborative skills
  • Allow students to write papers outside of class to demonstrate their learning or use research papers as a part of the course assessment.

Disability service office staff is available to assist you in exploring alternative ways to assess what your students have learned in ways that minimize the need for individual accommodations, such as extended test time.

Accommodating Students during Testing

A part of the course instructor role is assessing student learning. When the strategy you’ve chosen to test your students is ineffective for disabled students, you will need to provide an accessible experience. You can either provide accommodations to those students directly or request assistance from the disability service office.

When you choose to coordinate testing accommodations yourself, accommodations must be effective. Depending on the individual student, it may be effective for you to provide extended test time by:

  • Allowing the student to test in a quiet office or a departmental conference room– tests should not be administered in the hallway outside a classroom or in a busy office with ringing phones or other interruptions.
  • Testing the student in the classroom if you are able to stay after class and the room is available for the amount of extended time determined to be reasonable.
  • Having a TA or department staff proctor the student in a quiet location within your department.
  • Beginning the student in the classroom and allowing him or her to finish the exam after class in your office or another appropriate location if necessary.

Disability Service Office Test Administration Service

The disability service office offers a test administration service for course instructors who do not have the resources to administer their own tests with effective accommodations. If you choose to use this service:

  • Complete the online form to request test administration assistance and provide test dates and administration instructions.
  • Send a copy of each exam to the disability service office via email attachment, FAX or delivery when reminded via auto-generated e-mail messages.


Tests can be designed in ways that include or exclude. Some instructors create student assessments that are flexible and rarely require accommodations, while other tests present barriers. You should always have the opportunity to demonstrate what you’ve learned without the design of the test being a barrier. That will be accomplished differently in different situations: 

Accessible Tests in the Classroom

Increasingly, course instructors are designing tests that reduce the need for accommodations or are making arrangements for accommodations themselves. Some examples are:

  • Designing tests for 30 minutes but allowing students 50 minutes to complete them.
  • Giving tests online and using software to increase the time allowed for individual students.
  • Assessing learning with take-home tests, papers or projects.
  • Arranging quiet space in a department or office for student testing.
  • Providing technology, like a computer, for taking tests.

As a result of these instructional changes, you may find that accommodations you’ve used in the past aren’t necessary.

Testing at the disability service office 

  • Register your exams online as soon as possible. While we cannot guarantee service if we cannot reach your course instructor, we will attempt to respond to all requests and will keep you informed of our progress.
  • As the disability service office makes final arrangements for tests with your course instructor, we will let you know if anything needs to be worked out.
  • Make sure you check your email account regularly and ensure that the disability service office has your cell phone number.

What is the potential impact of this change?

  • As a result of advocacy that is thoughtful, consistent, regular and proactive, steps for students to complete in order to have an accessible test experience are minimized.
  • The test is identified as the barrier, which reduces opportunity for course instructors to consider the student dishonest or less knowledgeable.
  • The question of an accommodation being unfair is addressed as the course instructor’s choice to utilize an inaccessible exam; if the instructor wanted the test experience to be fully equal, then an assessment design that does not discriminate would be chosen.
  • Since the student is encouraged to see the test as the barrier, there is less personal stigma when accommodations are requested.
  • Course instructor responsibilities are clearly described and suggestions for designing accessible student assessments are offered.
  • The disability resource office is presented as a support to the course instructor rather than to the student.

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