Designing Fair Tests

by Carolyn Ito

Evaluation of students' acquisition of knowledge and skills is an integral part of the teaching process. Evaluation is necessary for a number of reasons: teacher verification of skills acquired by students, feedback to students, and communication with parents.

How can this part of the teaching process be accomplished fairly for students with disabilities? The focus of this article is adaptations of test construction. The goal is to address key considerations that will enable readers to design tests that can: be created, administered and graded in a reasonable amount of time; reflect the skills and concepts taught; and are appropriate and fair to all the students in the class. Test appearance, content, frequency, directions, language, types of questions, and a construction process will be discussed. Suggestions for adaptations of test construction will be offered.

The appearance of a test affects students' performance, particularly for students with visual processing problems, reading difficulties, or attention deficits (Friend & Bursuck, 1996). Dictated tests may be unfair to students with attention or auditory processing difficulties. Tests written on the board or overhead place students with visual and motor planning weaknesses at a disadvantage. Test experts recommend that all written tests should be neatly printed or typed and photocopied. Adequate white space within the test layout avoids crowded print, visual confusion, and misunderstanding. To ensure adequate white space, make margins one inch and a half wide on the left and one inch on the right; double space after directions; triple space between test sections; and enlarge diagrams, maps, and charts.

Test items should accurately reflect the amount of time spent teaching the target concepts. Avoid testing material which was not thoroughly covered in instruction. In creating the test, work for a balance of factual and application questions. For example, a factual science test question might be, "Which part of the cell regulates reproduction?" An application question might be, "Design a plant cell which would enable the plant to survive extreme temperatures." Include a variety of questions (true/false, multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blanks, short answer, essay, diagram, etc.) This procedure is fair to students with varying response styles. Begin tests with easy items to encourage student success. Include the point value for each question. Try to create tests where the point value adds to 100; this is easier for students to understand.

Directions for each part of the test need to be clear. Use simple language, avoiding unnecessary words. Begin with action words such as "circle," "choose," "write," "match," "draw," etc. Capitalize, bold, or italicize important words, ex. Circle the correct response. Teach what is expected in responding to directions like compare, contrast, criticize, define, describe, diagram, discuss, enumerate, evaluate, illustrate, interpret, justify, list, outline, prove, relate, state, summarize or trace. When an answer requires step-by-step procedures, list the steps vertically. Including an example or two of complicated procedures will help students who lack abstract skills. A question on an English grammar test might look like this. For each sentence listen below, do the following:

  1. Underline the complete subject once
  2. Underline the complete predicate twice
  3. Circle the simple subject
  4. Box the simple verb

Example: Mrs. Vazquez's students did very well on the test. (circle "students", box "did", underline twice "did very well on the test")

By taking care to make directions clear and precise, you will be confident that you are measuring students' newly acquired skills rather than their ability to follow directions. Once you have developed a clear set of directions, use them consistently. If you are a member of a team of teachers, it is time well spent to work on a set of team directions for tests. Provide instruction and practice on following new directions and additional instruction for those students who do not understand the standard procedures.

Fair test language is important. The vocabulary and style should be on the students' reading level. Use plain, economical language containing familiar vocabulary and the same terminology used during instruction. Avoid using negatives and tricky words such as the absolutes: all, always, every, no, none, never, and only. Monitor use of words like few, some, many, most, often, usually, seldom, and sometimes.

Specific test item construction is accomplished fairly by including these adaptations when appropriate:

  • use short sentences
  • avoid absolutes, double negatives
  • phrase in the positive
  • limit to 10 per test print T or F in front of the
  • statement for the student to circle
Multiple Choice
  • reduce the number of choices to 3 or 2
  • avoid absolutes
  • use uppercase letters (to avoid b/d confusion)
  • word the stem so that the choice is always at the end
  • write choices vertically
  • present the items in blocks of 5
  • group the 5 items by concept
  • double space between blocks
  • place the items with more text in the left column
  • instruct students to respond by placing the correct uppercase letter on a line in front of the question rather than by drawing lines to avoid visual confusion
  • provide a "floating" word bank (words written vertically on a separate sheet of paper)
  • place all blanks at one end of the sentence
  • use each word only once
  • choose the statements carefully: statements taken out of the context of the student's textbook may be confusing
  • change completion to multiple choice by adding 2 or 3 letter choices after each statement on the left hand side
  • underline important or clue words
  • provide an outline
  • give a choice of topics
  • display a reference chart with examples of commonly expected responses: discuss, describe, list, compare, analyze, etc.

How can adaptations be made without making tests too easy for some students and too hard for others? How can tests be prepared efficiently? Initially the process does take extra time and energy but, as with any new procedure, it goes more quickly with practice. Begin by making a commitment to creating two forms of each test, the long form and the short form. The government does this for us annually with our tax forms. We all pay taxes, but we choose the form we wish to use. Teachers need to have two test forms too. Create the long form first, preferably on the computer. Include all types of questions without considering unique adaptations for your special needs students.

Next, adapt the test, that is, create the short form, for those students who have special needs. Collaborating with other teachers can help you with your test preparation. Collaborate on essential test content and format. Then give the disk, a copy of the test and the answers to your colleague. Adjust the number of questions per section along with the point values, provide additional examples, create word banks, modify language, develop appropriate essay answer outlines, and turn fill-in-the-blanks into multiple choice. The short form of the test will look very similar to the long form and it will have many of the same questions on it. Further adjustments can be made during the test administration.

How can we tell if test construction is fair? First, look at the results of the student's performance. If students pass tests with at least the same degree of accuracy as during class work, then the test is fair. Observation of the student during the test will also give you a clue. If students approach the test confidently and move through the questions without signs of frustration, then the test is fair. If you would like more information on adapting tests, please see one of the references below or special education teachers in your building. You will be amazed at the small but significant changes you can make in designing your tests.


Friend, M. & Bursuck, W. (1996) Including students with special needs: A practical guide for classroom teachers. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Gronlund, N., (1993). How to make achievement tests and assessments (5th ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Salend, S. (1995). Modifying tests for diverse learners. Intervention in School and Clinic, 31(2), 84-90.

Wood J. (1991). Reaching the hard to teach: A model for providing strategies for mainstreamed and at-risk students. Richmond, VA: Virginia Commonwealth University.