Adapting Assessments for Students with Special Needs


“You should look at this section if you have only a limited idea of the issues involved in assessing students with special needs”

There is increasing awareness that a high proportion of students in mainstream schools have special educational needs, some diagnosed and identified but many not. This is in addition to the large number of students who are enrolled in schools to meet their special educational needs, such as schools targeted at students with visual impairments.

The term ‘special needs’ include a range of conditions from cognitive impairment and learning disabilities to physical and behavioural disabilities. Within each category there isa continuum of severity and within the education sector it is generally recognised that students need support that is targeted at their specific needs rather than a one size fits all approach to students in a particular category.

There are many ways to categorise special needs, but common ones include categories such as: autism spectrum disorder; visual impairments; hearing impairments; intellectual disabilities; orthopaedic impairments and emotional disturbances.

At the school level, special needs are often not identified, and it can be useful to distinguish between broader categories in terms of the type of difficulty children may face: vision, hearing, gross-motor, fine-motor, intellectual, communication and/or behaviour and socialization – see also the UNICEF and UNESCO guidance on monitoring education participation for children with disabilities (p.61).

For the purposes of equity and accountability it is important that all students can participate in assessment. To level the playing field, this means that adaptations need to be made for students with special education needs. This can be seen within the coverage of Sustainable Development 4.5 which emphasises equal access to quality education for all students. Classroom, formative assessment is especially important for children with special educational needs.

Approaches to inclusive assessment require the acknowledgement that every child with special educational needs is unique and educators need to identify and select appropriate strategies that will facilitate their engagement in assessment. Nevertheless, there are some key considerations that may be relevant for children with a range of needs. Some adaptations relate to infrastructure–how the assessment is presented to students and the conditions in which they are expected to respond. Other adaptations relate to attitudes–these are underpinned by values and beliefs and include approaches to how accommodations are made for students with special needs.

Common adaptations include:

  • increasing the font size of an assessment instrument,
  • providing a magnification device of providing a Braille, audio or electronic versions of instruments;
  • having assessment items read orally to students and/or allowing students to respond or ally with a scribe to record answers;
  • allowing students to provide typed rather than hand-written answers;
  • providing students with additional time;
  • breaking testing time up so that students have additional breaks;
  • providing students with personal assistants if they require help with movement;
  • providing sign language interpreters for all spoken instructions;
  • providing adapted furniture to suit students’ needs;
  • allowing students to take the assessment in a private room rather than with others; or
  • providing students with alternative forms of assessment, such as those using counters for mathematics.

There is no single approach to assessing students with special needs but in many countries there are guidelines on what should be done. Importantly, a first step in identifying relevant adaptations is ensuring that students’ needs have first been fully evaluated.

To find out more about common adaptations in assessment for students with special needs, move to #Intermediate.


” You should look at this section if you already know about some forms of assessment but are not sure of their different uses. “

The 1994 Salamanca Statement made clear that it was vital to recognise ‘the necessity and urgency of providing education for children, youth and adults with special educational needs within the regular education system’

As such, education systems are increasingly characterised by students with special needs being part of the mainstream student population rather than being segregated to schools targeted at their needs. This is important to ensure that all students have equal education opportunities and also means that–when it comes to assessment–the special needs of students need to be taken into account.

Of course, there should be a close relationship between accommodations made during learning and teaching and those made in assessment. For example, if a student is provided with a braille version of an assessment instrument this should reflect that they are provided with braille versions of learning materials in the classroom.

There are many different types of special needs, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to adapting assessment for them. Instead, the individual needs of students need to be taken into account in determining appropriate accommodations. The overriding priority should be that assessment is able to collect accurate data on a student’s skills and knowledge, without their special needs creating a barrier.

The National Center on Educational Outcomes in the United States has developed six key principles for inclusive assessment:

  • All students must be included in state, district, and classroom assessments.
  • Accessible assessments are used to allow all students to show their knowledge and skills on the same challenging content.
  • High-quality decision making determines how students participate in assessments.
  • Implementation fidelity ensures fair and valid assessment results.
  • Public reporting content and formats include the assessment results of all students.
  • Continuous improvement, monitoring, and training ensure the quality of the overall system.


Common accommodations include: enlarging fonts; providing digital devices to display or record responses; allowing interpretation, such as through braille or sign language; providing students with additional time; providing a separate room; and adjusting lighting and audio settings.

In the case that a student’s special needs are more severe, meaning that no accommodations such as these will be appropriate, alternative approaches to assessment (for example with different content) are required.

At the school or classroom level, individualised accommodations may be appropriate to make assessments accessible to students with special needs. In large scale assessment such as board exams or regional assessments, however, the development and application of guidelines for accommodations can help ensure that there is a more standardised approach to adapting assessment for students with special needs.

In countries where these do not yet exist, it is useful to review policies and guidelines from countries where mainstreaming of students with special needs has taken place over an extended period of time.

To find out more on policies and guidelines on adapting assessment for students with special needs, move to #Advanced.


“You should look at this section if you are already familiar with different kinds of adaptations in assessment and want to know more about how policies impact assessment of students with special needs​​​​​​​.”

Students with special needs are unable to demonstrate their skills and knowledge under normal assessment conditions. This means that they need to be provided with accommodations to ensure that any barriers to their performance are removed. Accommodations can include how assessment instruments are presented, how students are allowed to respond, the setting in which assessments are taken and the timing and scheduling of assessments. Accommodations do not include making the assessment easier(which is referred to as modification).

At the school or classroom level, accommodations can be made for individual students taking into account their specific needs. Tools for teachers and schools such as the Checklist of Learning and Assessment Adjustments for Students (CLAAS) in Australia can help guide teachers. At a large scale, however, it is difficult to make systematic adjustments for students with special needs without policies or guidelines being put in place.

In some countries there is legislation to cover the teaching, learning and assessment of students with special needs, including the necessary adaptations. For example, in the United States, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires all students to sit state assessments with accommodated or alternative versions. They suggest a set of questions to determine accommodation needs:

  • What are the student’s learning strengths and needs?
  • How do the student’s learning needs affect the achievement of the grade level content standards?
  • What specialized instruction does the student need to achieve the grade level content standards?
  • What accommodations is the student regularly using in the classroom and on tests?
  • What is the student’s perception of how well an accommodation has worked?
  • Has the student been willing to use the accommodation?
  • What are the perceptions of the parents, teachers and others about how the accommodations appear to have worked?
  • Have there been difficulties administering the selected accommodations?

Alternative approaches to assessment may include the approach outlined by the SWANS project in which students are assessed on the basis of teachers’ observations and judgements of their students. For example, a category for assessment is ‘The skills the student can demonstrate independently, unless support or prompting are specifically mentioned in the assessment question’ while another is ‘The skills the student can demonstrate with the use of appropriate assistive materials, devices or technologies (e.g.,corrective glasses, hearing aids, Braille, picture symbol systems, switches, and so on)’. 


In the United Kingdom, the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) produces guidelines that require students with special needs to have been formally assessed and to make an application for ‘reasonable adjustments’. It gives the example of a student with dyslexia that requires a coloured overlay, a word-processor and 25% extra time. This application is supported by a formal assessment and is applied for in advance of an assessment.

The JCQ also list common adjustments such as those for students with communication and interaction difficulties such as autistic spectrum disorder who may require:

  • supervised rest breaks;
  • extra time;
  • a computer reader or a reader;
  • a read aloud or an examination reading pen;
  • a scribe;
  • a word processor or
  • modified language papers.


Digital assessment increasingly provides greater opportunities to adapt assessment delivery to a wide range of student needs, as well as offering new functionalities in the ongoing tracking of students with a wide range of needs.​​​​​​​

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