FREEHOLD, NJ – For most high school juniors, SAT and Advanced Placement (AP) exam season proves to be the most daunting and difficult period of the year. For students with visual impairments, the task of completing an exam full of graphs, charts and political cartoons without proper accommodations can be nearly impossible.
Kaleigh Brendle, a rising senior at the Scholars’ Center for the Humanities in Freehold, filed complaints with the United States Department of Justice and Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights earlier this year, claiming that the accommodations for her AP exams were insufficient, most notably in lacking a hard copy braille version of the exam that is typically offered.
According to Brendle, who is legally blind, the College Board (which creates and administers the AP exams) discontinued braille hard copy exams during the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, leaving students across the country without the testing accommodations normally used to decipher visual components of a test.
'We just wanted to take our tests'
The online exams offered in May did not include user-friendly equations, graphs and charts, instead using a limited text-to-speech transcription – a recipe that, to Brendle, caused more confusion than comfort. Although guardians would be able to give descriptions of visual test stimuli during an exam, the 17-year-old argues that a parents’ limited contextual understanding of equations or political cartoons put students at a disadvantage.
“The College Board made it clear that 65 percent of my AP Biology exam score was going to be dependent on my ability to interpret and analyze a graph,” Brendle said. “The text-to-speech transcription would spell out every point on a graph and speak at you. It was inundated with details. It’s not a substitute for spatial information. That's not how we learn, and it’s unfair of the College Board to ask us to test in that capacity.”
According to the student, under normal circumstances, she would also be entitled to a reader and a scribe to verify that any photos, charts or graphs on the braille copy matched the print copy. She would also be entitled to breaks whenever she would need one.
“Before the quarantine happened and before COVID-19 struck, I would’ve received all of my exams in hard copy braille. For the more visual courses like AP Biology or AP United States History where you have political cartoons, I would have those tactually embossed,” Brendle said. “We were willing to compromise [with the College Board], we wanted compromise. We didn’t want compensation or publicity. We just wanted to take our tests.”
A new kind of challenge
The coronavirus pandemic not only impacted the five Advanced Placement exams that Brendle opted to take, but also the highly competitive 2020 Braille Challenge Finals, a highly competitive academic event that named the student as one of only 50 finalists worldwide. While the New Jerseyan typically studies on the domestic flight to the West Coast event – and up until the final minutes of the test – this year sees Brendle reading the likes of Hemingway in braille from the comfort of her home to prepare.
The competition, hosted by the Braille Institute, is divided into four components for Brendle’s varsity age bracket: speed and accuracy, proofreading, reading comprehension and charts and graphs. Brendle mentions that, since several tasks include speedwriting on a Perkins braille typewriter or quickly identifying braille errors, the challenge is a physically intense one.
“It’s sort of like you’re competing against the clock. It’s like my own little track-and-field competition,” said Brendle, who has been competing in the annual competition for a decade. This year will mark her tenth year qualifying for the final round. “It’s a wonderful competition and it’s given me so many amazing memories.”
Since the preliminary regional competitions held earlier this year, students from grades 1-12 participated in the high-intensity academic challenges to hone their braille literacy skills. Brendle was only one of 50 named out of a global selection of candidates to make it to the final stage of the competition. In early July, Brendle competed virtually against students from the United States and Canada for a chance at a winning title, which will be announced on July 31.
For Brendle, though, her success in aiding visually impaired students across the country with appropriate AP test accommodations has proved the biggest win imaginable.
What makes a winner
While it was only announced after the Advanced Placement testing period had finished, the College Board made the decision to allow for braille and additional accommodations that Brendle had advocated for. The organization also permits students requiring accommodation services to take the exams again.
“I’m sad that I had to go through it in the sense that I spent so much time trying to make these exams accessible in that I hardly had enough time to prepare for them, but I’m grateful for it because of all the connections it helped me build and the fact that it really gave me a clear sense of what I wanted,” said Brendle. “When it happened, it was the most incredible sensation to know that all of that work paid off, that everyone in the world who takes these exams that need braille is going to get it.”
The aspiring attorney states that the friendships she has made during her years of competition has proven extremely rewarding, and the sense of unity that she has found within her community has been unparalleled.
“Nobody outside of our circle can quite understand the rigor of the competition. You build these amazing friendships with people who understand the hardships that come with being blind,” Brendle said.
“Certain people portray having a visual impairment as this easy thing to maneuver, but in reality, there are these challenges presented to me by my disability every day. That’s just reality, you have to learn how to circumvent it.”
Have a news tip? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.