Via Patrick McGurrin
Li Jinsheng was among the first people with a visual impairment to take the gaokao. What is the gaokao? It is China’s nationwide university entrance examination. One could compare it to the American SAT, a test we know all too well. Very recently, the Human Rights Watch pushed forward their goals to make the gaokao more inclusive, and the changes mark a great victory for disability advocacy in China. Until now, the test had been strictly for those without disabilities such as visual impairments, thus maintaining discrimination concerning who is able to participate in the test.
Mr. Jinsheng received tremendous support from Chinese media for his determination to take the test despite his visual impairment. However, he reported that the test “went badly.” After the test, the media shifted their coverage to that of condemnation. They criticized him for his test scores, and attested that his actions had brought shame to the blind community.
Where should we place our blame? Do we fault the test taker for his lack of positive test performance, or do we argue that success was unobtainable due to the conditions of the test? In today’s world, we blame the test taker. If a student doesn’t due well, we conclude that they aren’t suited for higher education. When we consider someone with a disability, does this standard become less clear?
This is a careful line that we must consider when discussing accessibility of tests in higher education. Of course tests need to be accessible. That is not the question. We must adapt to excel in higher education. We are given access to the content, and must use our unique intellect and ingenuity to use this content to find success on a standardized test. This ability is crucial to excelling in a higher education program, and exemplifies the abilities that these tests try to assess.
The Ministry of Education had made known that the changes to the gaokao would entail a braille format for people with visual impairments. Mr. Jinsheng commented that despite this knowledge, he had a very difficult time with Braille. Furthermore, an electronic form of the material would have improved his test score. This leaves an open question to whether a failure in accessibility or a lack of academic aptitude was the cause for the test results.
In this regard, what if a sighted student argued that the test was not in an accessible format due to the question format? Perhaps the wording of multiple-choice questions made devising the correct response confusing when multiple choices seem possible given the context. Must we then cater these tests on a more individual level for this individual as well? While this alternative is always possible, the idea contradicts the premise of the standardized test.
The above examples offer some perspective on the issue at hand. We must be cautious as we move forward toward inclusion of standardized tests that we ensure universal inclusion irrespective of disability or lack thereof. At the same time, we must also ensure that the playing field is not shifted in favor of any one group of students.