What To Bring To The Disability Services Testing Center

At my university, the Office of Disability Services has its own testing center that students can use to take quizzes and tests assigned in the classroom, as well as midterms and final exams.  There are single rooms with CCTVs and long tables, small cubicle-style areas, as well as other small-group testing rooms.  This is an awesome service for students who need a modified testing area, and I am really grateful that I have access to such place to take my exams.

Over the course of the last four semesters, I have learned a lot about what to bring to the testing center, and what to leave back at my apartment.  I’ve gone from bringing an entire backpack worth of materials to just carrying a few items.  Here are five of the items that I always bring to the testing center with me, and five items I leave in my apartment.

What to Bring

Student ID and Government Issued ID

For all exams at my school, the student must bring their student ID so the instructor can verify their identity and student number.  For a couple of my classes, I have been required to bring a government-issued ID card in addition to my student ID.  Since I don’t have a driver’s license, I obtained an under-21 ID card from the DMV and use that.

Colored Pens/Scented Markers

I use colored pens instead of pencils when taking my exams, since gray pencil lead on white paper provides very poor contrast.  I like to bring several colors with me, typically blue, pink, orange, green, and other bright colors.  I also bring four different colored highlighters with me for marking multiple choice questions.

I started working with scented markers while studying for my math exams and found that I was able to see numbers more clearly than when I would work with the fine-tip pens.  Another thing I noticed is that my brain would recognize the scents from the markers and help me remember things I studied, which is actually a proven study tip.

Cardstock Paper

When working with pens and markers, it’s easy to have ink bleed through to the other side of paper- or worse, transfer to a surface.  I request that my test be printed on single-side paper, and use cardstock paper, sized 8.5″ x 11″, in order to do scratch work.  I attach all of the materials that I wrote on at the end of the exam.

Earplugs

While my testing center provides these for students to use, I like to bring my own pair of comfortable earplugs that help cancel out random noises outside.  The pair I use feels very similar to earbuds/headphones without wires.  Here is a link to them on Amazon.

Professor Contact Info

I bring a small index card to each exam with my professor’s name, email, office location, and phone number.  The index card also has my name, student ID number, class name, and class section.  This has come in handy many times when the test wasn’t in its correct location, or the proctor had to call the teacher for further instructions.

What Not To Bring

Cell phone

While cell phones can be stored in a locker at the testing center, I prefer to leave my phone in my apartment.  Since I live a two minute walk from the area, I don’t find it necessary to carry with me.  Why would I carry something just to lock it up?

Backpacks

Backpacks, purses, and other bags can be difficult to store at the center and locate after the exam is over.  I prefer to get out of the testing center as quickly as possible, so I don’t bring anything that I have to check in.

Pencil Pouches

One time, I organized everything nicely in a pencil pouch to bring to the testing center.  For security reasons, it all had to be dumped into a clear plastic bag once I got to my exam.  It’s okay to bring these to exams, but don’t expect that you will be allowed to keep it with you in the testing center.

Portable CCTVs

I have been advised not to bring my own portable CCTVs because of the potential that the devices can store screenshots of the exam.  The testing center provides their own assistive technology devices for students to use.  I have never had any issues using their devices.

Personal Computers

While it makes sense to take an exam on a familiar device, personal technology is not permitted in the testing center.  My recommendation is to write down all of the common settings used and show it to the testing coordinator, who can enable those settings on a testing computer if needed.

For more testing-related information, check out these posts below!

Testing Accommodations

Surviving Midterms/Finals

Accommodations For Print Materials

How To Create A Disability Services File

Accessibility Settings For Windows 10

 

 

 

 

State Standardized Tests/ SOL Accommodations For Low Vision

Every state has their own form of standardized tests. In my home state of Virginia, we have the Standards of Learning exams, most commonly referred to as SOLs. At least one of these tests is administered a year, from third grade to twelfth grade, and students sometimes take up to four of these exams. While they technically don’t count for a grade, students need to pass a certain number of SOLs in order to advance in school or graduate. For the majority of the student population, the tests are administered online with fill in the blank, choose multiple answers, and multiple choice questions, in addition to exams where the student writes an essay. There’s only one problem with these digital exams- they can’t be enlarged.

Before the digital exams came out, everyone took exams on pencil and paper, but I had a special exam that was in large print. In third grade, my first year of taking the SOLs, the school forgot to place an order for all four of my exams, so when test day came, I didn’t have a test, so the school decided I would go sit in a classroom with first graders while the rest of the class took exams. When the tests showed up a week later, I had to take all of the tests in one day, as opposed to having one day to complete each test. Luckily, the test proctor gave me candy inbetween tests as a way to apologize for what was going on. Ordering tests early is extremely important, as if you have a student who uses large print in the classroom, they need it in the testing environment too.

In middle school, the tests converted to a digital format, and I was beyond excited for this. I couldn’t wait to be able to enlarge text and graphs how I needed them, and be able to work with computers, since I love technology. As I expressed my excitement, someone turned to me and said “oh, you can’t enlarge this. The magnification feature is locked to prevent cheating.” While this was before I knew a lot about assistive technology and accessibility, I still thought that made absolutely no sense. How is being able to see something clearly considered cheating?

I think a lot of the stigma about receiving a large print test started once the digital tests started being used. The large print test was printed on ridiculously large paper, since it took up three desks in size. The text was enlarged to size 20 point font, and at the time I also had accommodations to use pens and highlighters, while other students had to use pencils. One interesting thing is that while the rest of the class could use a calculator, I was not permitted to use one because they did not have one that I could see. Another fun fact about the test is that the ten field/test questions on the traditional exam are eliminated, as are the fill in the blank, true/false, pick multiple, and other free response question formats. I had less questions than everyone else, and the questions were multiple choice. One year, I had a teacher complain to the principal that I finished before everyone else, to which my family and I had to explain that I had ten less questions than everyone else, so naturally I would finish quicker. I also didn’t have to transfer my answers to a Scantron document, so that saved time as well.

I always managed to pass my SOLs until I took geometry. My geometry teacher was awesome, and probably one of the best math teachers I had in school because they understood how to create accessible materials. Unfortunately, the people who created the SOLs did not know how to create accessible materials, as my mom and I found out that graphs and other images were only enlarged to 113% (as of 2017, they are now enlarged 166%, but since I receive materials enlarged to around 250%, this still wouldn’t be large enough). I wound up failing the SOL because I had so much difficulty with the graphs and shapes, but I was eligible to retake the exam the next semester.

As a student with an increasing interest in assistive technology, I suggested that the test be broadcast on a projector in a classroom so I could work out the problem on the white board and then record my answer in the test booklet. It was easier than magnifying the test, as my eyes hurt whenever I used a magnifying glass, and I was not provided any other assistive technology like a CCTV. Because I had sensitivity to flashing lights as well as lights in general, I had to take the exam in a classroom that was almost completely dark, with my case manager as a proctor (who later told me they were worried about falling asleep while I took my exam). I wound up failing the exam on the second try as well, but only by two questions. Since I passed my algebra 2 SOL (using the same projector accommodations, and still without a calculator), and I only needed to pass two math SOLs to graduate, we decided not to worry about geometry anymore.

When I moved to a different high school junior year, I got the opportunity to finally use a calculator on my SOLs. I was recommended the myScript calculator app, which would be enabled in guided access mode so I couldn’t use the Internet or any other apps. This was extremely helpful, and I managed to do very well on my chemistry SOL because of it. I remember being very excited about this calculator, to which my guidance counselor asked if I wanted to try my geometry SOL again, and I said that I’d really rather not.

I graduated with an advanced diploma from Virginia public schools in 2015, meaning I had passed at least two English exams, two math exams, two science exams, two history exams, and another exam in one of those subjects. Since I have graduated, the E-Bot Pro, my favorite CCTV, has been approved for use with the SOL. Students can also apply for accommodations to use portable CCTVs such as the SmartLux or other video magnifiers on the exam. As I like to say, everyone has the right to see the same things as everyone else, and that applies to testing as well. I hope my experiences with the SOL can help other students with low vision taking standardized tests, and that they may be able to do better than I did.

If you have any specific questions about my SOL accommodations, feel free to comment below, as comments go directly to my email. I will do my best to respond.



Colored Paper and the Readability of Text

On my seventeenth birthday, I presented at a science fair affiliated with my school district about my research on how the color of paper can affect the readability of the text on the paper.  This was the first time I really investigated how important contrast is when creating accessible documents, and I was able to determine the colors of paper I preferred for my assignments.  When I presented this research to the science fair judges, I received an unexpected surprise- three out of the five judges were colorblind!  Globally, one in twelve men and one in two hundred women are colorblind, and the odds of encountering two men and one women who are colorblind in a room seemed to be one in a million.  My friends and family found this experience absolutely hilarious, and told me that it would be a great story to tell if I ever presented my research again, though I wasn’t very amused.

My interest in this topic began in 2013, when I visited a neuro-opthalmologist at a large medical center who showed me an eye chart with different colored backgrounds.  They explained that people tend to see better on the eye chart with colored backgrounds because the colors helped reduce eye fatigue (from the white glare of the normal eye chart) and it was easier for the eyes to focus.  I was fascinated by this, and chose to do more research on it for my science fair project.  Over the years, I have learned even more about creating accessible materials and how important contrast is, and will be sharing some of the practical applications of my research below.

What colors work best

Light yellow and light blue were found to be the paper colors that were the easiest to read off of.  It could easily be read in all lighting conditions, and the effectiveness of the colors weren’t diminished if someone wore tinted glasses (like I do).  I have found it is easy to read on these colors for long periods of time, and all colors of my pens and markers show up sharp even on the colored paper.  Blue is best for large amounts of information or reading, while yellow works great for worksheets.

What colors work less well

Neon bright colors, while they do stand out, often contribute to eye fatigue and the eyes may have trouble focusing on the page.  Darker colors, such as those found on conventional construction paper, may also be difficult to read.  The darker backgrounds obscure text and make information difficult to process.

Using colored films

While this wasn’t part of my project, one of my teachers found that I processed information much better when they added a colored film on top of the paper that they were projecting, or when I layered a colored film on top of what I was reading.  Because of the way fluorescent lighting was set up in some classrooms, I found these films difficult to use when the lights above me would reflect on top of the plastic, so I very rarely used them while sitting at my desk.  Now that I am in college though, and most of my classrooms don’t use fluorescent lighting, I have found myself reaching for these films more often when I have to read papers for long periods of time.

Changing white intensity

Since sharp white can be bad for eye fatigue, I have blue light filters on all of my main electronic devices, including my desktop computer, laptop computer, Android phone, and iPad.  I also have a post dedicated to reducing eyestrain with technology.

If I put it on a colored background, does this mean I don’t need large print?

NO!!  If you have low vision, please continue to use your preferred font sizes and image sizes, even if you use a colored paper.  The page color is supposed to make text easier to see, not to add any other difficulties.

Bottom line, the page color can influence the readability of font, and by using light colors, the reader may find it easier to read for long periods of time and not have as much eye fatigue from glare.  Experiment with different papers and figure out which one works best.

ACT Accommodations For Low Vision

Even though I took the SAT, it was recommended that I also take the ACT (plus writing) test, as colleges liked to see that students took both exams.  While getting my SAT accommodations for my print disability was fairly easy, since I had taken an AP exam in the past, getting my ACT accommodations was extremely stressful.

I was denied my initial request for large print, however was approved for triple time, and received notification about this eleven days prior to the test.  Following that, my mom and I contacted the ACT organization, who requested more documentation for my disability, so we sent them my IEP and certification of low vision from my opthalmologist.  We also got the school testing coordinator involved in the process.  Nine days after I was initially denied accommodations, and two days before the exam, I was approved for everything I needed.

Like my SAT, I took the test in a small group setting in a different classroom than the rest of the students.  We went to the school I would be testing at the day before my exam to fill out forms as well, so when I got there, they could immediately start my exam.  Since I had triple time on each section on the test, the sooner I started the exam, the sooner the exam would be over.  I had triple time for all of my sections, and while I was approved to take the exam over the course of several days, I chose to take it all in one day.

I received a large-text test booklet with 18-point Arial font, and the testing coordinator transferred the responses from my booklet to the answer document.  I was allowed to mark in my test booklet, and use my colored pens and highlighters for the test.  I had two desks that I used to spread out materials, and the lights were replaced with lamps in the testing room to reduce the risk of flickering fluorescent lights.  I took a break between each section, but never left the classroom.

I was approved to use the myScript calculator app on my iPad with guided access enabled, so I couldn’t access the internet or any other apps.  I also was permitted to use a magnifier and a blank 3 x 5 index card for tracking text.  The index card was especially helpful when tracking math and science text.  I was not allowed to use a computer for any section except for the writing section- I used Microsoft Word and had spell check and the internet disabled.

I received my scores about six weeks after everyone else, as is typical for most large print exams.  One thing I liked is that I was able to see how I did in individual sections, and it was relatively easy to send scores to the colleges I applied to.  Overall, I would recommend taking both the ACT and SAT tests, and filing for accommodations several weeks in advance, and submitting every piece of documentation you could possibly think of.


 

SAT Accommodations for Low Vision

I remember when I walked in to take my SAT.  The day before, my mom and I, along with the testing coordinator for the school I was taking the exam at, spent at least an hour filling out a variety of pretesting forms and filling out my information on what seemed like several dozen pieces of paper.  Keeping track of all those forms seemed to be more stressful than taking the exam.  When testing day came, the testing coordinator gathered all of the forms and signaled for my mom and I to come to the front of the line so I could be escorted to testing.  As my mom and I walked forward, a bunch of parents started yelling at us for cutting the line and seeming like we were more important than everyone else.  They started asking what was wrong with us as I was walking away with the testing coordinator.  To answer their question, there isn’t anything “wrong” with me, I was just a student who received accommodations for my vision impairment.

We filed for my accommodations at least twelve weeks in advance.  While I had taken an AP Exam in the past, the College Board had us resubmit my accommodations because we had to make some minor changes.  My accommodations were approved in a reasonable amount of time, and I didn’t have to worry about rescheduling.

I took my test in a small classroom where I was the only student, with at least two staff members present.  The overhead lights in the classroom were turned off and replaced with lamps to help with my light sensitivity.  I had a giant table to work on my test, and there were computers in the classroom for when it came time to type my essay.  I received short, frequent breaks to stretch my legs and walk around the classroom, since I was prone to leg spasms.

The test itself was in 22 point Arial font and came in a spiral-bound book on 8.5″ x 11″ paper.  The paper was thick so I didn’t have to worry about the colored Sharpie pens I used bleeding through and obstructing my view of answer choices.  Images were enlarged 250%, and math notation such as exponents were enlarged as well.

As for assistive technologies, I used my personal iPad with the app myScript calculator, a calculator that calculates equations that the student writes with their finger and that supports large print.  There were no graphing capabilities on this calculator.  Guided Access was enabled for the duration of the exam so that I could not access the internet or other apps during the test.  I also had access to Microsoft Word 2013 with the dictionary, encyclopedia, and internet functions disabled, for the essay portion of my exam.  The essay was printed after I finished typing.  If I could go back in time, I would have also used a CCTV device as an extra support during my exam for when I had trouble seeing smaller items.

I received time and a half on the exam, which was adequate for me.  I also did not fill out the bubble sheet for the exam, instead having a paraprofessional do it after I had completed testing and left the building.  It’s worth noting that I did not receive my scores at the same time as everyone else who tested on the same day as me- I believe I had to wait an additional 4-6 weeks, as is common with most standardized tests that are in an accessible format.

Below, I have outlined my official accommodations for the exam:

  • Large print, size 22 Arial point font
  • Graphics enlarged to 250%
  • Extended time- 150%
  • Use of pens on the exam
  • Word processing software
  • Extra/untimed breaks
  • Use of alternative calculator
  • Small group testing environment

Overall, taking my SAT exam went incredibly smoothly, and I was able to score very well and get into my top choice college, as well as my second choice.  I am grateful that it was a relatively stress-free experience in taking my exam…well, about as stress-free as taking a SAT can be.

How To Survive Midterms/Finals

Midterms week is finally over, and I couldn’t be more happy about that. It’s been a long week of studying and taking tests, while trying to keep eye fatigue and migraines at bay. Here are some of my tips for surviving midterms and finals week. While this information can be helpful to any college student, I have specifically written it with students who have low vision or chronic illness in mind.

Use a tinted background for study materials.

White paper and screens can provide a lot of glare and cause eye fatigue. One way to lessen eye fatigue is to use tinted backgrounds in a shade such as gray, blue, or yellow to reduce eye fatigue. You can enable a colored tint on your Apple device using these instructions, use one of these free apps on a computer, or simply print study materials on colored paper.

Request notes online

Take terrible notes? You have options to receive quality notes at little to no cost. The best way, of course, is having an accommodation in your Disability Service file to request notes directly from the professor. There are also many websites where students upload their notes from a specific course- ask someone at your college which website most students use, or web search your college name and course name/number. These websites often will allow you to download notes at half price or even free if you have a Disability Services file. Also check with Disability Services to see if any of their student note takers have notes from your class.

Use digital flashcards

I love using the website Quizlet to create my own flashcards and review flashcards from other students in my classes. The quiz feature is also extremely helpful when testing material. I use Quizlet specifically because the animations do not cause vertigo or have strobing lights, something that is very critical for me, and the text can be enlarged easily.

Find a comfortable study location

Do not study in bed, no matter how comfortable it is, because if you are anything like me, you will fall asleep. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t be comfortable. I have this back support pillow at my desk chair and it helps keep my back spasms from acting up while I am studying for long periods of time. I’ve also been using this heated shoulder wrap every hour or so to keep my shoulders from tensing up.

Move around during breaks

I try to leave my study area when I am taking a study break. Usually I go for a walk around campus or go to the gym so I can sit in the hot tub for a few minutes and make sure my muscles don’t tense up. Try not to spend study break time staring at a screen, as this is an opportunity to rest your eyes.

Don’t try to study with a migraine

For those who get daily migraines like me, do not attempt to study while you have a migraine. It will just take longer to recover. Likewise, if you have an exam in twenty minutes and a pounding migraine, call and ask to reschedule, preferably for the same day. Migraines and exams do not mix.

Ensure accommodations are in place at the testing center

Also make sure that your test is actually in the possession of the testing center before test day- I have shown up to take tests that weren’t at the testing center yet a few times. Filling out the testing form in advance is extremely important to ensure you are able to take the exam on schedule. I try to fill out the form a week before the test date.  For more information on my test accommodations, check out this post.

Scheduling tests

Keep your eyesight and energy level in mind when scheduling an exam day and time. No matter what time my class meets, I try to schedule my exams for first thing in the morning when my eyes are well rested and I am less likely to have a migraine. I also try to schedule the exams the same day the rest of the class is testing, or earlier if that isn’t possible. None of my professors have ever complained about me taking an exam early.

Make sure the testing environment is free of distractions or triggers

Even if you are testing in the disability testing center, there can still be distractions. Before taking an exam, I check for flickering lights, loud noises, and if I am testing in my own room, I make sure there is enough room to walk around if my legs start to spasm. Another thing to check for is air fresheners- this semester, I came down with a migraine halfway through my exam and couldn’t figure out why, and it turned out there was a bowl of coffee beans next to where I was taking an exam, and coffee is one of my migraine triggers, so sitting next to a bowl of them wasn’t very smart.

Celebrate after exams!

Plan something fun for after exams are finished- preferably something that won’t aggravate existing fatigue. Some things I’ve done include dinner at one of my favorite restaurants, a day trip to D.C. or Maryland, going to the movies, or simply spending time with friends.

UPDATE– Do not go out to eat with friends the night before your last exam, even if you have been to the restaurant many times.  I had the honor of taking a midterm with food poisoning, and I wish that experience upon no one.

 
Exam week can be hard on anyone, but it’s especially difficult for people with chronic illness or other disabilities. I wish you all good health days and good grades for your exams!

Testing Accommodations For Low Vision Students

Finals week is fast approaching for college students and I have to say I’m not nervous at all for my finals. It helps that my first college final week last year was a whole new level of stressful because I had just been in a car accident two weeks prior and couldn’t think straight because of neck pain, so any finals week in comparison is remarkably less stressful. Another thing that helps is that I have testing accommodations that allow me to focus on the test, as opposed to stressing my eyes out trying to process the material. Here are the accommodations I receive through disability services in college, and some that I received in high school that were written into my IEP.

Colored paper and Arial font

I did a science project in eleventh grade about how colored backgrounds were easier to read for long periods of time as opposed to sharp white, and I have found it’s easier to focus my eyes on a shaded background than white. I usually received tests in high school on light blue or light yellow paper. Arial font is important because it reduces the risk of mistaking letters for one another and it’s clear to read, as well as the fact it scales well on the paper.

Single sided paper 

So one day in tenth grade, the paraprofessional enlarging my work decided to print my tests double sided, something that had never happened before. When I started writing on the test, the sharpie pens I wrote with bled through so I didn’t notice there was information on the back. My math teacher approached me after looking at my test and said “great news! You did really well on half the test…you just didn’t see the other half.” Thankfully, she let me redo the other half, and I never received double sided papers again for testing.

Ear plugs

I have what my family calls super sonic hearing, meaning that my sense of hearing is elevated to compensate for my lack of sight. As a result, I can get easily distracted in testing environments by water dripping from a faucet, the air conditioner, and even voices from halfway across the hall. As a result, I would wear ear plugs, or sometimes just headphones unplugged from my iPod, to muffle background noise and help me concentrate better.

Time and a half 

For timed tests, I receive time and a half so that if there is a problem during the test or if I just need the extra time, I have it. While I don’t often use it, it was extremely helpful during my SAT and ACT tests

iPad apps, when necessary

I rely on certain apps for my learning on the iPad, including a calculator. I have been able to use the myScript Calculator for the state standardized tests, called the SOL in Virginia, the SAT and ACT, and in the classroom as long as guided access is enabled on my iPad.

Sharpie pens

Most tests require students to use pencils, but I am unable to see pencil due to the very faint gray color of the lead. While this is no problem in college to use, I had it specifically written into my IEP that I could use pens. Obviously, I did not use Scantrons.

Low light testing environment

I have pretty intense photosensitivity and bright fluorescent lights are one of my enemies. For my standardized tests, ACT, SAT, and college tests that I take where I am the only one there, the lights are dimmed 50% so my eyes don’t burn from the light. In college, the overhead lights are not used and I have a lamp next to me instead.

E-bot Pro

I have a more in depth review, but this little machine is the reason I have done so well on tests this semester. It is a CCTV that broadcasts to my iPad so I can adjust contrast and zoom in from my iPad. It also can read text when needed. It uses its own personal wifi connection so the iPad can’t access any other apps or the internet. According to a vendor I spoke with, it is approved for state standardized testing in Virginia as well as the SAT and ACT. It is a relatively new device, and one I wish I had in high school.

Large table

All of this assistive technology starts to pile up very quickly on a normal sized desk. While I don’t believe this is written into my accommodations, taking a test on a larger table in the classroom is always something I request. My geology professor lets me set up all of my technology on her desk, and there’s always been a large table lying around somewhere back in high school.

High contrast images, graphs, and maps

When I took geography as a ninth grader, my teacher noticed I had trouble reading the maps and enlarged them on PowerPoint for the entire class to use so that the symbols were clearer. He noticed test scores went up because everyone found it clearer to see. Having images that are easier to read benefits more than just the student needing the accommodation.
While it may seem like I receive tons of accommodations to take a test, most of these are very basic. Although I had one teacher say that me receiving testing accommodations was unfair to the other students, none of my other teachers have said that these give me an unfair advantage. Testing accommodations just help me to show what I know on a test, just like the other students get to do.