Volume I Number 4, November 1994

Computer Based Science Assessment: Implications for Students with Learning Disabilities

David D. Kumar
College of Education
Florida Atlantic University


Computer technology can be invaluable for assessing learning disabled students in science since it opens up opportunities for developing innovative assessment tools in science education. The nature of computers as information processing tools, the role of computer technology in user-friendly interactive learning environments, and the possibility of designing instructional tools to meet individual needs of students, make computers potentially powerful tools for assessment. Computer-based assessment applications used in science, such as Computerized Adaptive Testing, Figural Response Item Testing, Computer Simulations, and Anchored Assessment can be appropriated for assessing students with learning disabilities.


Science education has been one of the major topics of reform in the United States, leading to national curriculum and assessment standards currently being developed for science education. Meanwhile, _The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)_ along with the _Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA),_ is mandating academic access is all areas of education for students with learning disabilities (Stinson, 1993).

As Bybee and DeBoer (1994) suggested, pre-college science education must help all students to develop thinking and problem-solving skills essential for survival in the 21st century, and science assessment should evaluate student-ability to apply these skills in problem situations (Helgeson, 1992). Nevertheless, science education often fails to address the needs of students with learning disabilities (Holahan, McFarland, & Piccillo,1994). For example, among high school students, disabled students scored significantly lower grades on science tests. Donahoe and Zigmond (1990) reported that 69% of students with learning disabilities earned a grade of D or below in ninth-grade science. In this respect, an argument could be made that science education as a field, is failing to provide learning disabled students with suitable assessment technology in order to meet their testing needs. Therefore, how to develop suitable assessment technologies for students with learning disabilities is a question of great concern to science educators and researchers.

While exploring avenues for improving science assessment for the learning disabled students, one should not overlook the emerging role of computer technology in assessment. The following discussion will address how computer technology might be a promising tool for designing assessment environments for such students.


Research and development of innovative computer environments for science assessment is a field that is slowly but steadily growing. A comprehensive review of computer applications in science assessment is reported in Helgeson and Kumar (1993). It should be noted here that this review did not find any computer-based assessment tools specifically designed for individuals with learning disabilities.

This paper will attempt to fill this void in the area of assessment of students with learning disabilities, by deriving information from computer-based science assessment studies in regular classrooms.In order to fully understand what computers are and how they can play a vital role in the assessment of students with learning disabilities, it is important to see computer technology from a cognitive science perspective. According to cognitive science, computers are information-processing tools with a capability to be developed into thinking tools (Rowe, 1993; De Mey,1992). Computer technology environments such as hypermedia and multimedia are known to resemble human knowledge structure and hence are increasingly gaining recognition in educational applications (Kumar, Smith, Helgeson, & White, in press). Additionally, computers are found to have a positive impact on student attitudes in learning (Knight & Dunkleberger, 1977). Therefore, considering the cognitive and affective significance of computers in education, computer-based tools ought to be developed for the assessment of learning-disabled students in science.

Some of the cognitive and affective ways computer technology can be used for assessing students with learning disabilities in science include: Computer Adaptive Testing; Figural Response Item Testing; Computer Simulations; and Anchored Assessment.


In computerized adaptive testing (CAT) the computer continuously reevaluates the ability of the student resulting in a test that is tailored to each individual student (Jacobson, 1993). This fine tuning is achieved by statistically tailoring the test to the achievement level of each student while avoiding extremely easy or difficult questions (Welch & Frick, 1993). Some of the potential benefits of CAT for students with learning disabilities are summarized below. First, according to Welch and Frick (1993), questions used in a particular computer adaptive test should have one objective of measurement at a time. This simplifies the focus of the test taker, and helps him or her avoid worrying about multiple objectives. Second, in a computerized adaptive test, the order of presenting questions does not determine the success or failure in answering that question. If informed in advance about this characteristic of CAT the student's frustration over failure in an early question will not interfere with his or her attempt to solve the another question. Third, in CAT, questions are administered by a computer, and the student enters an answer using a key board or computer mouse. The computer platform also allows the use of colorful graphics and illustrations to make the questions clear and understandable to the test-taker with a learning disability. Such a format over the traditional paper and pencil test may tend to reduce any impediment in comprehending the information on the test at the student-media interface. (See Schneiderman, 1987 for more information on computer-user interfaces). Fourth, the number of questions required to reach a pass/fail decision in a CAT is considerably fewer and the test time is considerably shorter than in traditional written tests (Herb, 1992). In the case of learning-disabled students with short attention spans, fewer test questions and shorter test time can be motivating factors to complete the test.


Figural response item testing is a novel approach to science assessment using computers. According to Martinez (1993), figural response items are suitable for assessing science proficiency in graphic-oriented science disciplines such as biology. Often graphic information is more comprehensible than textual information, especially when dealing with students with learning disabilities. In figural response item testing, students respond to each question by manipulating the appropriate figures on a computer screen. For example, in a biology assessment, students can be asked to assemble a plant cell from a menu of cell components, or transform stereo isomers of biological molecules using on-screen computer tools. According to Martinez (1993), figural response item testing scores correlated positively with students' verbal and figural aptitudes, and it is suitable for a making reasonable appraisal of student performance in science.


Traditional assessment methods are often criticized for testing end results or products and not assessing processes of science learning and problem solving (Helgeson, 1992). While dealing with students with learning disabilities, it is always to their advantage that more manipulatives are used for both science instruction and assessment. On the other hand, assessing science processes of large groups of students via hands-on tasks is a particularly strenuous task. In this respect, computer simulations play a key role in science assessment. Simulations of hands-on science tasks are found useful for assessment on a large scale basis (Pine, Baxter, & Shavelson, 1991). The computer keeps a record of every move made by the student in solving a task to provide a detailed profile of his or her performance for assessment. Using computer simulations of simple science experiments might be a more meaningful way of assessing the understanding of science processes of students with learning disabilities than using traditional multiple choice tests.


In anchored assessment, videos are used as anchors, and an interactive software is used to trace and record student performance (Young & Kulickowich, 1992). The videos provide students with a broader context of the problem, enable them to revisit the problem context any number of times, and help them gain a meaningful understanding of the nature of the data involved.

These features should give students with learning disabilities a flexible visual environment for exploring and understanding a problem before attempting to solve it, rather than trying to guess its meaning when it is presented textually on a paper. Anchored assessment also enables students to be evaluated qualitatively, an advantage seldom available with multiple choice tests.


This paper attempts to present innovative ways of science assessment using computer technology and to assess the implications for students with learning disabilities. As pointed out earlier, computer technology is a viable tool for performance assessment in science, and a potentially powerful tool for replacing traditional product-oriented paper and pencil tests. However, most of the performance assessment research in science education to date is focused on the normal/regular student population. If students with learning disabilities need to be properly assessed in science and their participation in science education encouraged, then more innovative approaches to testing ought to be researched and developed.

The computer-based science assessment methods addressed in this paper are potentially useful methods for meeting the needs of students with learning disabilities. Researchers and educators must pay special attention to, first, testing and validating the use of computer technology-based testing tools, and second, developing newer tools or redesigning existing tools for assessing learning-disabled students in science education. If the goal of science education in the United States is to make science available for all people, and it is not rhetoric, then the rights of students with learning disabilities must be honored and their science educational needs given due consideration.


I would like to acknowledge Professor Penelope Fritzer, Florida Atlantic University for critiquing an earlier draft of this paper.


Bybee, R. W. & DeBoer, G. E. (1994). Research on goals for the
science curriculum. In Gable, D. L. (ed.), Handbook of research
on science teaching and Learning. New York: Macmillan Publishing

De Mey, M. (1992). The cognitive paradigm. Chicago: The
University of Chicago Press.

Donahoe, K. & Zigmond, N. (1990). Academic grades of ninth-grade
urban learning disabled students and low-achieving peers.
Exceptionality, 1, 17-27.

Helgeson, S. L. (1992, April). Assessment in science teaching and
learning outcomes. Panel presentation at the annual meeting of
the American Educational Research Association, San Francisco, CA,

Helgeson, S. L. & Kumar. D. D. (1993). A review of educational
technology in science assessment. Journal of Computers in
Mathematics and Science Teaching, 12(3/4),227-243.

Herb, A. (1992). Computer adaptive testing. ADVANCE, (Newsletter
of the Medical Laboratory Professional). February 17, 1992

Holahan, G., McFarland, J., & Piccillo, B. A. (1994). Elementary
school science for students with disabilities. Remedial and
Special Education, 15(2), 86-93.

Jacobson, R. L. (1993). New computer technique seen producing a
revolution in educational testing. The Chronicle of Higher
Education, September 15, A22-23, 26.

Jonassen, D. H. (1988). Designing structured hypertext and
structuring access to hypertext. Educational Technology,28(11),

Knight, C. W., & Dunkleberger, G. E. (1977). The influence of
computer-managed self-paced instruction on science attitudes of
students. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 14(6),

Kumar, D. D., Smith, P. J., Helgeson, S. L., & White, A. L.(in
press). Advanced technologies as educational tools in science:
Concepts, applications, and issues. In Thomas, D.(ed.),
Scientific visualization in mathematics and science teaching.
Charlottesville, VA: Association for the Advancement of Computing
in Education.

Martinez, M. E. (1993). Item formats and mental abilities in
biology assessment. Journal of Computers in Mathematics and
Science Teaching, 12(3/4), 289-301.

Pine, J., Baxter, G. P., & Shavelson, R. J. (1991, April).
Computer simulations for assessment. A paper presented at the
Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association,
Chicago, IL.

Rowe, H. A. H. (1993). Learning with personal computers.
Victoria, Australia: Australian Council for Educational Research.

Schneiderman, B. (1987). Designing the user interface. New York:
Addison Wesley.

Stinson, B. (1993). Getting started with adaptive technology:
Meeting the needs of disabled students. Florida Technology in
Education Quarterly, 6(1), 71-76.

Welch, R. E., & Frick, T. (1993). Computerized adaptive testing
in instructional settings. Educational Technology Research &
Development, 41(3), 47-62.

Young, M. F., & Kulikowich, J. M. (1992, April). Anchored
instruction and anchored assessment: An ecological approach to
measuring situated learning. A paper presented at the Annual
Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San
Francisco, CA.

Kumar, D. D. (1994). Computer based science assessment: Implications for students with learning disabilities. Information Technology and Disabilities E-Journal, 1(4).