Volume XI Number 1, August 2005

Universal Design For Learning: A Statewide Improvement Model For Academic Success

Michael Abell
University of Louisville
Preston Lewis
Kentucky Department of Education


The state of Kentucky has embarked upon a large scale systems change effort to integrate Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles, including use of digital curriculum and computerized reading supports to improve overall student achievement. As higher expectations are placed on student outcomes, UDL offers a host of instructional advantages leading to improved performance for Kentucky’s K-12 students.


Universal Design for Learning (UDL) has its roots firmly planted in the architectural field but educators are now seeing the transition of universal design principles into the field of education (Rose & Meyer, 2000). The principles of UDL offer teachers new ways to instructionally engage students through accessible digital curriculum materials and the latest technology tools. Educators have learned that students who have reading disabilities or are struggling readers often do not gain the same amount of knowledge as other readers for a variety of reasons. Student challenges may include such factors as decoding or comprehension problems, attention deficits, or vision impairments. Research has also shown that instructional materials developed in accessible formats offer a host of benefits to all students because they allow learners to customize and engage instructional content to suit their unique learning styles (Brown & Augustine 2000; Fennema-Jansen, 2001; Eagleton, 2002). The premises found in UDL offer students and teachers new individualized learning opportunities. These opportunities are not limited to students with disabilities; they help everyone who benefits from individualized, scaffolded learning supports to enhance their own learning needs. Accessible digital curriculum, paired with technology and sound instructional supports, is beginning to open new doors to learning for all students.


To meet the challenge of helping all students achieve at high levels, the Division of Exceptional Children Services of the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) in partnership with the University of Louisville has embarked upon a state-wide initiative based on UDL principles in an effort to help all students achieve at high levels. The KDE serves over 600,000 students in 176 school districts with over 100,000 students identified as having disabilities (Kentucky Department of Education, 2004). Specifically, the KDE researched and then developed a comprehensive plan based upon UDL foundations of accessible instruction. This statewide initiative included procurement and distribution of accessible digital curriculum materials and creation of an infrastructure of software tools for student use. An online accessible version of the state assessment with full technical support was also created from the ground up.


The increased accountability found in No Child Left Behind (United States Department of Education, 2001) and benefits offered by technology were the driving forces behind the movement toward UDL, along with the growing research base it offers. The challenge faced by the KDE, as well as other state departments of education, was to find new ways to engage students with disabilities with the general curriculum to improve their educational performance. A secondary goal was to integrate UDL principles and technologies that could benefit all students, not just those with disabilities.

In Kentucky, as well as across the nation, reading and writing skills play a significant role in the achievement scores obtained on standardized and non-standardized tests. These are particularly important to Kentucky’s annual state assessment called the Commonwealth Accountability Testing System (CATS) (Kentucky Department of Education, 2002). These two areas were targeted, with particular emphasis placed on reading achievement and accompanying supports as targets for improvement. The state director of special education, Judy Mallory, and program services branch manager, Preston Lewis, worked closely to develop and institute these initiatives with the goal of improving overall student achievement. Through a partnership with the University of Louisville, a program staff was hired to facilitate and coordinate project initiatives with coordination from KDE.


To address the areas of reading and writing skills, a four-pronged student-based approach was implemented initially by committee, then assigned to project staff. Staff worked in partnership with various support agencies, while also providing direct services to districts interested in incorporating project components. These included locating and distributing accessible digital curriculum materials, school-wide availability and use of technology supports (e.g., text reader tools), accessible online assessment, and a broad array of technical support and implementation training. These areas were identified as critical to improve the achievement of Kentucky students, especially in the core areas of reading and writing.

UDL works to support student-centered learning through the integration of curriculum and technology with flexible digital curriculum materials and productivity tools for students in the classroom (Burgstahler, 2001; Hitchcock, Meyer, Rose, & Jackson, 2002). Acquiring accessible curriculum materials was targeted as an important component of Kentucky’s plan. Efforts in this area were supported by recent legislation that amended Kentucky’s textbook adoption law to encourage textbook publishers to offer accessible digital versions of textbooks offered for adoption in the state (Casebier, 2002). Starting in 2003, this legislation paved the way for publishers to begin offering digital curriculum materials aligned to Kentucky’s textbook adoption cycle and specifications (Legislative Research Commission, 2003). These digital textbook files are then distributed to eligible students with disabilities in accordance with the copyright requirements of the Chaffee Amendment. This Kentucky legislation has prompted more publishers to examine the opportunities for producing and selling accessible digital text as a free market solution for all students (Association of American Publishers, 2002). To support this influx of digital content, the Kentucky Accessible Materials Consortium (KAMC) was established at the University of Louisville. This partnership between the KDE and University of Louisville works to promote, manage, distribute, and support copyright compliance of all accessible digital curriculum materials offered in Kentucky to students with print disabilities. The KAMC also offers training and support to educators on the benefits of digital content and ways to integrate these into their curriculum. Located on the Internet at http://kamc.louisville.edu/kyecontent, the KAMC also provides links to thousands of non-copyrighted works of literature available in digital format for all students to use.

The next step was to research, review, select, and introduce text reader software into Kentucky schools. Currently, 85 percent or over 1000 Kentucky schools have purchased text reader software such as Read and Write Gold (RWG) from TextHELP (Ltd.). This software is promoted for use by all students for reading and writing support. The software provides a number of tools for students to access learning. First and foremost, it is a text reader that reads aloud individual words, sentences, and paragraphs in various formats (e.g., Word, Excel, PowerPoint, .Txt) back to the student who may not be able to read well, has a comprehension deficit, or has other related reading deficits. While this supports individual learning, it also avoids many stigmas experienced by students with reading disabilities (Hasselbring & Goin, 2004). It also allows students using a computer with headphones to read any content they choose without being singled out through a dependency on a teacher or other human supports because of their disabilities. As one seventh grade student with a learning disability stated, “I love having the computer to help me read, because the computer never embarrasses me.” RWG also includes customization features for speech output, such as a number of voice styles in addition to controls for the speed, pitch, and tone of the voice output. These features allow students to customize their learning environment to their own liking. A key factor in this strategy has been to encourage each school to acquire a text reader site license, rather than single-station licenses. The site license enables students to have the technology available where and when it is most needed, that being in general education settings versus only in special education resource rooms. In fact, there is increasing evidence that this technology is helping many students (See Evaluation section) to be served successfully in inclusive educational settings. It also demonstrates that students can understand the curriculum when presented in a way that minimizes the impact of their print disabilities and uses their stronger learning modalities. Anecdotal evidence also suggests that use of this technology enhances many students’ self-concept as well as perceptions by peers, allowing students with disabilities to go from a position of “stigma to status”.

RWG provides a host of other supports that all students can benefit from. RWG includes a comprehensive speaking dictionary, thesaurus, spell checker, word prediction, regular and scientific calculator, and other tools to help in the reading and writing process. Each one of the features can be used discretely with headphones. Using the speech output feature, students can read back definitions found in the built-in dictionary or passages they compose using the word prediction feature. Because each feature of RWG has the capability of speech output controlled by the students, these students are not hindered by their lack of reading skill. Through the click of a mouse or using alt key commands, the text reader software is able to read aloud digitized text, definitions, and writing passages that the students create and would like read back to them. Providing students the opportunity to hear what they have written allows them to make critical decisions and efficiently make changes to improve the quality of their compositions. This is especially important in the writing process.

With more students with disabilities moving from human to technology supports as instructional accommodations, the KDE had to move quickly to assure these students would be able to use this technology as an accommodation for taking the state CATS assessment. Beginning in 2002, the KDE worked to develop and pilot an accessible online version of Kentucky’s annual state assessment given to all students. This online version was developed to provide universally designed assessment opportunities for students with disabilities (Thompson & Thurlow, 2002; Thompson, Thurlow, Quenemoen, & Lehr, 2002). In 2003, the KDE launched the nation’s first online accessible assessment for use by eligible students with disabilities. To be eligible to participate in the state online assessment, students must have an identified disability and an Individual Education Plan (IEP) which specifically includes the need for a reading accommodation, and evidence of the use of a text reader in their daily instructional routine. More recently this assessment accommodation has also been made available to students with Limited English Proficiency (LEP) whose Personal Service Plan (PSP) includes its use. The KDE (2004) notes that students who regularly use the computer to read text that is above their independent reading level may be eligible to use a text/screen reader as an accommodation on the academic portion of Kentucky's statewide CATS assessment, the Kentucky Core Content Test (KCCT). To qualify for this accommodation, three criteria must be met:

  1. The student must have a documented disability which justifies the use of this technology as an accommodation (i.e., reading, sensory, or physical disability),
  2. The need for a reading accommodation and use of assistive technology must be in the student's IEP, and
  3. The student must use the technology as a regular part of classroom instruction. (KDE 2004, p. 2)

Students are also required to have accessed and used the CATS Online Practice Area before the test to assure they know how to use the website’s tools and navigation. Through use and tracking of individual student login IDs, the online system denies students access to the live assessment if they have not spent time in the Practice Area. Using the system also requires new skills and experience from their teachers who must know how to use the technology and online assessment to support their students in its usage. It further entails a new wave of collaboration between assessment, instructional, and technology support staff to ensure that hardware, software, and technical assistance is present both for the set-up and uninterrupted administration of the online assessment. The KDE developed comprehensive resource materials and directions to assist both students and staff in the complexities of delivering the state assessment online. One of the most challenging and unique characteristics of this endeavor has been learning how to design and deliver a state assessment in an online environment in accessible format, while assuring the security of content and its web-based delivery.

Ongoing training and support (Backhouse, 2003) plays an important role in the overall state project. Without local, regional, and state level commitment to professional development and technical assistance, implementation will be sporadic and limited. Three major resources are available for technical assistance and training. (1) The first includes staff from the KDE and their partner the University of Louisville which offers research-based training and support. Training offerings cover such areas as Universal Design for Learning (Orkwis, 1999), universally designed online assessment (Abell, Bauder, & Simmons, 2004; Thompson, Johnstone, & Thurlow, 2002), instructional strategies such as Differentiated Instruction (Tomlinson, 2000), and technology assistance supported by the growth of conceptual models (Edyburn, 2001). (2) In addition, a network of special education cooperatives strategically located throughout Kentucky has made available a specific person for training and technical support. These special education cooperatives offer important technical assistance to school districts within their region and have assigned staff members to provide district specific assistance and training. (3) Lastly, a strong support network is provided by staff from TextHELP Systems (2004), which offers the text reader software utilized in many Kentucky schools. TextHELP provides a host of online, phone, and remote technical assistance options to support and resolve installation and usage issues.


A wide variety of qualitative and quantitative data have been collected during the statewide implementation of UDL-based practices. The central focus of these evaluation efforts is on the implementation of text reader software for all students in Kentucky. They also examine the accessible online state assessment (CATS Online) being used by qualified students with identified disabilities.

The statewide implementation of text reader software (TextHelp, 2004) focused on the introduction, training, and support components; capacity-building was also underway with special education cooperatives that would eventually begin to offer regional training and support networks. To boost local acquisition of the text reader site licenses, the KDE has annually offered matching funds to assist schools in the purchase of Read and Write Gold software. Increasing focus has been on how this tool can be used for a broad array of instructional purposes across the entire student population. Currently over 1000 Kentucky schools have purchased site licenses for this software, and a wide variety of instructional uses have been noted. Data collected revealed a broad spectrum of usage involving specific content types and subject areas (Kentucky Department of Education, 2004). While successful implementation and integration with instructional practices is continuing to grow, data has also shown that schools continue to need support in such areas as software installation, hardware upgrades, and instructional integration strategies.

According to teacher data collected during the 2003-04 school year, usage across the content areas is focused on language arts and reading. (See the E-Text Content Areas chart below.) Text reader software has shown the highest usage by students and teachers needing support in these two instructional areas. This may be due to the software easily aligning to reading and writing tasks that transfer across content areas including math and social studies. It may also be a result of fewer accessible digital curriculum materials being available across other content areas.

E-Text Content Areas Used by Survey Respondents (Graph)

Data also revealed that usage from June 2003 to April 2004 is sporadic, but ongoing and growing. Factors attributing to slow adoption include older hardware and limited access to computers, while technical support and training may also play a role.

Usage of E-Text Software by Survey Respondents (Graph)

Currently, a wide variety of digitized instructional materials are used by students in Kentucky. The following chart reveals the growing rate of text reader usage to support student writing activities. Using text readers, students are able to utilize a number of features, such as reviewing and proofing their writing using the audio feedback capability. Read and Write Gold (2004) also offers powerful editing features, such as word prediction and a talking dictionary and thesaurus, to name just a few.

Type of Materials Used with E-Text Software by Survey Respondents (Graph)

Qualitative data, including teacher and student comments, was collected during the 2003-04 school year as students and teachers implemented broader statewide utilization of the text reader software. In general, comments were only available from teachers, but student comments were also solicited from those who took part in the CATS online assessment:

  1. The students have enjoyed and benefited from using the program.
  2. Have just started using it. It has been helpful for my students.
  3. Thank you for a fantastic piece of software! Love the program.
  4. Great software! It really gets my students interested in reading and wanting to write. I have found the Read and Write Gold program to be very effective in assisting my students with disabilities. It has benefited many students by successfully bridging the gap between their knowledge and their abilities.
  5. My higher-level functional children can really benefit from this and I believe technology can be their future.
  6. My students enjoy using Read and Write Gold. It has helped my students become excited about reading.
  7. This software is very helpful. Students who have a deficit in language skills particularly benefit from it.
  8. Read and Write Gold is a very valuable tool that I use with my students frequently.
  9. Students enjoy hearing what they have written. Sometimes it helps them figure out simple mistakes.
  10. We have just starting using this software. The students are very excited about it and interested in it.
  11. I love the program and the options it gives students with reading and writing disabilities.
  12. I have students with limited language usage and the TextHELP helps the students to expand their language and create a more effective writing piece.
  13. My children enjoy using Read and Write. They like the voices reading back to them. We have typed in short stories to read back to them.
  14. The new version is much better than the previous one.
  15. Also at the present time we do not have enough computers that are accessible to special education students to implement the program.
  16. I would use it more often but do not have time in the lab frequently and the computer in my room is inadequate in running the program.
  17. I am currently a collaborating special education teacher and since I move from room to room my students have little access to the Read and Write Gold program.
  18. We expect the use to increase during the 2004-05 school year as the software is more readily available in all classrooms.
  19. We currently only have one computer on which the software can be used and so using the program has been limited.
  20. The drawback to the program is that it takes so much memory to run that our old computers can not run the program AND run something else like the internet or a word document.
  21. We would use it more if we had the time/resources to scan our books.

The software (TextHelp, 2004) implementation has shown broad acceptance and usage in Kentucky schools. The primary challenges have been the availability of new computers with 256 megabytes of memory to easily run the software. Access to available machines and the training of teachers on new ways to integrate this software tool into student learning activities are areas marked for ongoing support.

Teachers' comments about student usage and other specific issues follow:

  1. Also, for our age group, it is difficult for the students to come over and work independently with the program.
    It is difficult to manage if I have multiple students in the room because students need so much help due to their low reading and functioning level.
  2. It is a good resource to have; however, it does not provide the same quality that the teacher provides when reading to the students.
  3. Our special ed population has changed this year, with fewer intermediate students (and more primary students) having severe needs. We mainly use the software for 4th grade students to have their original writing read back to them for editing/revising purposes. Occasionally (less than once a month), intermediate special needs students use it to have web pages read to them when conducting research for projects.
  4. We use it primarily to read back student portfolios to find errors.
  5. For the Read and Write Gold lab, I have a shared network folder that I save the class syllabus, modified test, specific study guides, alternative textbooks and class notes. The students are able to access this information once they enter the Lab.

The Read and Write Gold (TextHelp, 2004) text reader software allows students participating in Kentucky’s CATS Online Assessment to utilize its text-to-speech capability to have questions repeated on demand. This has powerful implications for students with disabilities who require human readers and are shy or reluctant to have questions repeated, or feel embarrassed to have multiple questions read orally by a human reader. Now, using the text reader software and headphones, students with disabilities can have questions repeated as many times as they want without feeling inadequate compared to their non-disabled peers when using this technology accommodation. Students have total control of navigation allowing them to review questions and return to them later if needed. It has also been noted that while these same students previously tended to be the first ones to complete the paper version of the test, they now often take the full allotment of test time indicating heightened engagement with the test content using technology.

The CATS Online Assessment was developed by the state department of education to help students with disabilities gain access to the assessment using their technology-based reading accommodation. Of particular interest, beyond potential performance gains, are the ways students using universally designed assessments can benefit through the natural supports built into the system. Quite often, human supports such as readers and scribes are relied upon to assist students with disabilities on formal assessments. New universally designed assessments offer teachers and students new ways to engage these high stakes tests (Abell, Bauder, & Simmons, 2004).

Comments were solicited from students who participated in the Spring 2004 CATS Online Assessment. From these comments one can see an overall satisfaction from the student’s perspective. It should also be noted that while satisfaction is high among students, teacher comments and implementation issues at this level need further exploration and refinement. The content of student comments is summarized below:

  1. 89% of students said they believed they did better by taking the test online.
  2. 82% of students said they could concentrate better.
  3. 60% of students said they liked that they could work at their own speed.
  4. Students frequently commented that they felt less embarrassed and intimidated having the computer read questions to them.

It should be noted that the questions presented and overall requirements found on the CATS Online Assessment are no different than those of the one utilized by non-disabled students taking the paper version of Kentucky’s state assessment.


Given the large and complex task of a statewide systems change initiative, many insights have been gleaned and are presented in the following chart. While specific lessons are often similar across large-scale projects, one cannot negate the importance of strong leadership and vision. Staff from the Kentucky Department of Education provided the leadership and support without which this project would not have been possible. Strong administrative leadership over the last five years and sustained commitment of state and local fiscal resources has allowed project components to become established and embedded within these education agencies. The leadership also allowed other states to learn from Kentucky’s experiences by sharing resources and knowledge.

Systems Change Issues Regarding UDL Implementation in Kentucky

Issues Challenges Solutions
District support for text reader Software Cost of purchase, support, and training Five-year state improvement grant was acquired to implement and assist in purchase of software and training staff
District technical Support Need for comprehensive support network for RWG software 1.Develop three-tier network from TextHELP Systems using website, phone, remote access support options; 2.Integrate with KDE technical support system
State accountability testing for students with disabilities Improve State Assessment results for students with disabilities Create and align an online accessible version of the state assessment to be used by students with disabilities and assistive technology
Building state support network Long term support for Universal Design Principles and E-text Develop and train support network within the state’s existing special education cooperative network
Digital text Gain access to digital text for teachers and students to use with text reader software Partner with the University of Louisville to create the Kentucky Accessible Materials Consortium which works with publishers to increase textbook offerings available in digital format and distributes individual copies on CD to eligible students


Students in the 21st century face higher expectations and more challenges than ever before. These students are also the beneficiaries of educational technology and instructional resources only dreamed of a decade ago. Teachers and administrators are also faced with new challenges to increase student learning, often with fewer resources and higher accountability measures.

Universal Design for Learning blends educational technology with accessible instructional resources that allow students to control and customize the learning environment to meet their own unique learning style. In Kentucky, students with reading or writing disabilities are no longer solely dependent on teacher support when problems arise. With core content available in accessible digital formats paired with computerized reading and writing supports, students now have more tools to assist and manage their own learning needs. It also offers the benefits of individual empowerment. Using these tools and accessible content, students will be able to engage curricula and assessment materials without worrying about decoding skills, print disabilities, or the accompanying feelings of self-consciousness. Helping students reach their potential and become independent learners achieving at high levels is an important goal of public education. Through the principles found in UDL, the state of Kentucky has begun to move into the 21st century by enabling individual students to have access to the tools and support to achieve at truly high levels.


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Table of Contents Page

Abell, M. & Lewis, P. (2005). Universal design for learning: A statewide improvement model for academic success. Information Technology and Disabilities E-Journal, 11(1).