Curriculum Associates: Building accessible solutions to foster learning for all K-12 students
Founded in 1969, Curriculum Associates creates research — and evidence-based — print and online instructional materials, screenings and assessments, and data management tools. These products provide K-12 teachers and administrators the resources they need to teach diverse student populations and foster learning and growth for all students.
The company serves more than 11 million students across the US, which is roughly one third of all K-8 students.
Allison Johnson, Director of Accessibility, has been committed to the accessibility of materials since she began at Curriculum Associates. She initially led accessibility efforts on digital instruction and eventually moved into her current, more-centralized role, where she oversees accessibility across the entire organization.
“Years ago, we were a Flash-based program, which significantly limited what we could do technically — so getting out of Flash and into a more sustainable HTML version was our first goal,” she said. “Once we achieved that, we were able to take a breath and evaluate our next set of tech priorities.”
Curriculum Associates was working on improving accessibility across project teams, but it was piecemeal and isolated. Johnson said, “Accessibility was a priority, but because we were using different approaches, we were missing opportunities. If the same students are going to be using our tools and resources, things like the keyboard navigation focus indicator should be the same across all of them. We saw an opportunity to centralize things and establish best practices to create a more consistent, accessible user experience.”
As a step toward achieving that goal, Curriculum Associates formed its Access & Equity (A&E) team, led by Gabriel Salzman, Senior Director of A&E. The team is dedicated to maintaining the company’s standards around accessibility as well as excellence in Spanish instruction and assessment, English Learner support, and DEIB (Diversity, Equity Inclusion, and belonging). Johnson and Tristan Price, Accessibility Manager, head up accessibility efforts.
“Our A&E team ensures support for all learners. It’s part of our mission statement, and we genuinely aspire to that. We never want accessibility issues to be the reason why a student can’t benefit from our wonderful resources,” Johnson said.
Curriculum Associates was already deeply committed to accessibility — but wanted to go beyond compliance.
Johnson said, “We were really trying to make a shift internally from thinking primarily about compliance to prioritizing usability. Conforming to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is critical, but we really want our materials to be usable for all kids.”
In particular, the team wanted to explore improvements around screen-reader support and refreshable braille displays. “We’d learned from educator and student feedback that we could be doing better. We were looking for a way to do meaningful testing and partner with experts who could help us create an optimal user experience by working with users of assistive technology,” Johnson said.
“When we met with Perkins Access, we knew they would be a great partner. They offer testing with users of assistive technology and provide detailed insights reports so that we’re able to go beyond compliance,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t just ‘Here’s what passes and here’s what fails.’ They were prepared to work with us to help us understand the context and reasoning for each of the recommendations.”
“We were really focused on usability questions — we know it complies, but there’s another layer on top of that. Can the user understand? Is it consistent? Is it visually biased in a way we didn’t understand before?” said Gina Trakadas, Product Manager. “Perkins Access gave us that additional layer of depth and insight into how people are interacting with our tests.”
She continued, “The feedback was so concrete and actionable. Based on a simulated experience using our actual content, they gave us a detailed account of issues that were found — why they’re issues, how it aligned with WCAG and where there might be usability hurdles — while identifying fixes and prioritizing next steps. We weren’t just looking at a problem, but also had reliable ways to address those problems based on stats and expert recommendations.”
Price agreed. “The focus on the usability aspect was invaluable. For example, I’m not a native user of refreshable braille displays. So, I can do the best I can to test it — but getting feedback from someone with actual experience is incredibly helpful.”
He continued, “I have worked as an accessibility consultant for many years — what really surprised me was the candidness of the report and findings,” he said. “The Perkins Access team identified all the issues and then we figured out how to work together to prioritize and improve them. From top to bottom, Perkins Access gave us a complete rundown of everything — in a very shareable, easy-to-understand, honest and straightforward way. Their combination of professionalism, level of detail, focus on balancing usability and compliance and programming issues is very valuable — and not something you find everywhere. It was surprising in a really, really good way.”
Working with Perkins Access has helped Curriculum Associates increase accessibility and usability across the organization. “There’s definitely been a ripple effect,” said Johnson.
Trakadas has done several readouts with additional stakeholders at the company, including other project leads and members of the design team, to discuss the experience and how to incorporate the results into future offerings. “We also have a cross-functional meeting with writers, designers, and more to dig into top-priority fixes and think about how to apply them going forward,” she said.
Johnson added, “Another team heard Gina [Trakadas]’s share-out and now want to do an insights report themselves because they’re also working on optimizing for refreshable braille displays and screen-readers. This one will be earlier on in the release cycle — they have the advantage of getting these learnings sooner so they can bake the concepts in from early stages. The fact that, internally, we already have different teams recommending Perkins Access to each other is a testament to our wonderful experience. And I think that will only continue.”
“Perkins Access really met the unique needs that we had at the start — and the additional needs we anticipate moving forward.”