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Exam accessibility in the UK

Exam accessibility in the UK

Leading experts from schools, exam boards, technology companies and regulators came together in London recently to discuss the future of exam accessibility in the UK.

With the deadline for comments on proposed minimum standards for accessible digital exams looming, the British Assistive Technology Association (BATA) event was timely. Delegates heard details of current arrangements for accessibility and discussed ways forward based on experiences in Scotland and the US.

 “In the UK, accessible exam delivery is largely centred around accessible PDFs. Even that is controversial as there is a diverse range of views about the suitability of PDFs as an accessible exam format,” said BATA chair Mark McCusker.

“Assistive technology developers will tell you that it is a difficult format to support. Accessible PDFs don’t really exist on Macs so texts have to be delivered on a PC. However, it is the preferred current format.

“But it is interesting to think of the future and ask the question how will exams be delivered generally and follow that up with how will students with disabilities be supported? It seems probable that exams will be taken online.”

The UK Association for Accessible Formats (UKAAF) has been commissioned by the regulator Ofqual to develop minimum PDF standards for digital exams. Working with the British Dyslexia Association, RNIB and CALL Scotland, UKAAF has developed two standards: one for sighted candidates, the other for blind candidates.

The UKAAF was taking a realistic pragmatic approach said Abi James, representing the British Dyslexia Association. The Association’s aim was to build confidence and take the first steps towards ensuring accessibility needs were considered when creating exam papers.

Thousands of learners with print disabilities will benefit from access to an electronic version of an exam paper, allowing them to change colours, adjust magnification or use text to speech tools.

However, most PDFs currently produced by awarding bodies are designed for printing hardcopy exam papers. Few are designed to be used by candidates as electronic documents on screen; as a result accessibility features are often lacking.

Accessible PDFs are available for all exams set by EdExcel/Pearson, Dale Hinch, the examining body’s e-assessment development project manager reported. Requests for these papers were primarily for GCSE exams and dyslexic students represented the largest group asking for modified papers.

Electronic papers included built-in accessibility tools including keyboard controls, colour screen filters and zoom facilities. Dale highlighted some of the challenges of PDF formats which included difficulties with maths notation, and lower levels of functionality than were available in on screen formats.

There were more general accessibility challenges, he said. For example, clashes between different assistive technologies, the cost of technology and the need to communicate effectively with schools.

Chris Eridani Ball from the regulator Ofqual said that it was still early days in the introduction of accessible digital exams. There had been some teething problems, but use was sure to grow. Ofqual, he said, expected exam awarding organisations to set inclusive exams. He was looking for effective information and sharing of good practice.

Rory Cobb of RNIB and Alistair McNaught of JiscTechDis, considered the experiences of disabled students. Many vision impaired students had had positive experiences of access arrangements for digital exams, especially since large print A3 pages were difficult to handle. However, some modified exam papers had errors and tactile diagrams were often hard to interpret.

Vision impaired students need to work in formats they were familiar with and there needs to be better provision of past papers. “Increased emphasis on electronic access in the classroom needs to be reflected in exam provision,” the speakers concluded.

Alistair referred to the Dyslexia Action charity’s view that deducting marks for spelling or grammar was unfair on SEN students. The issue was examined more closely in table discussions where the consensus was that examiners should not mark for spelling and grammar.

Speaking on behalf of teachers, Gareth Morewood of Priestnall School looked at the strengths and weaknesses of the current system. Because computers must be cleared of all previous data, schools had to keep separate machines for exams, which was a costly overhead, he explained. Pupils sometimes struggled with special exam log-ins and unfamiliar software, while PDFs were often difficult to download.

Jan McSorley, of the Pearson Assessment Center, gave a US perspective. Jan is involved in a $400m project called Race to the Top aimed at improving the quality of school assessment. A consortium of states has adopted or developed a number of standards to facilitate accessible online assessments. They include an Accessible Portable Item Protocol, Question and Test Interoperability and the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.

“There has to be consistency between instruction and assessment,” Jan pointed out.  The secret formula for fair and equitable assessment was to know learners, the tools that they used for instruction and to understand that when you remove choice you may be replacing it with a barrier.

Martin McKay of Texthelp described his company’s experiences in the US where Texthelp has worked with Education Departments in Kentucky and Florida and other states. Five years ago accessible content authoring was a problem, he explained, but huge improvements have been made. There were incompatibilities between systems used in different states, a backlog of inaccessible items and problems supporting students on test days.  Since then key industry players have worked together to create accessibility standards for online assessment.

For states that are not yet ready for fully online assessment, Texthelp developed a process for converting PDFs to secure accessible "talking paper document" that run on any computer.  They included a style guide, arrangements to include alt text, a defined reading order, guidelines on pronunciation and mathematical notation. Papers had to work on both PCs and Macs, sound the same on all computers and not give answers away, among other things.

Scottish school students have been able to opt for accessible PDF papers since 2005, explained Patricia McDonald of the Scottish Qualifications Authority and Paul Nisbet of CALL Scotland. The SQA had opted for digital exam papers in PDF format that have answer boxes onscreen for typing answers, while questions can be read out by text-to-speech software.

The Forum ended with a series of lively table discussion that addressed a number of questions including:

What are the opportunities and challenges presented by interactive PDFs?
Should we move from PDF to HTML or epub3?
Do we need to adopt Math ML for maths exams? 
Do web-based assessments offer more accessibility for students with learning difficulties?
What are the current test accommodations: and are they a level playing field for all?

Mark McCusker announced BATA’s intention to follow up the Forum with another event next year.

Speakers at the Forum were:

Abi James, British Dyslexia Association

Alistair McNaught, jisc TechDis

Rory Cobb, RNIB

Gareth D Morewood, Priestnall School

Dale Hinch, EdExcel/Pearson

Chris Eridani Ball, Ofqual

Patricia McDonald, Scottish Qualifications Authority

Paul Nesbitt, CALL Scotland

Jan McSorley, Pearson Assessment Centre USA

Martin McKay, Texthelp

Mark McCusker, BATA

John Lamb, BATA