Digital exams are a chance for something new to emerge
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As part of AQA’s team working  on accessibility in assessment, I leapt at the opportunity to attend this symposium at Hughes Hall and listen to a pool of acknowledged experts including Professors Bryan Maddox, Nidhi Singal and Dr Paul Englehardt.

Having so many people invested in the field in one room led to interesting and well-informed discussion.

It left me with the realisation that, although digitising exams is a major point in the evolution of assessment for all students, for those with SEND it can be a game changer.   

Digitising exams is an opportunity to build in accessibility for students with SEND

At the moment, diversity is viewed as a hurdle to be overcome by students who fall outside of the mainstream categories.

The advent of digital exams and the process of redesigning papers for that format is a tremendous opportunity to change that.

Our assessment experts will test every item’s layout, language and style to measure their accessibility when students use keyboard and mouse to interact with them on screen.

As Professor Nidhi Singal said, we can use this moment to ensure diversity and accessibility is built in rather than added on.

That way students with special needs or who face other barriers, such as linguistic ones, will have a better exam experience.

Monitoring how students work on-screen can improve assessments for SEND groups

Digital exam platforms will give us access to a wealth of data that traditional paper exams cannot.

Sophisticated eye-tracking software can see exactly how students work on screen.

Dr Englehardt’s work showed that while those with dyslexia may require longer to complete reading tasks than non-dyslexics, giving them extra time may not necessarily end with a correct answer.

His eye-tracking programs showed that those with dyslexia have twice as many fixations on a single word as those without; they re-read words more often and look at words for longer periods.

Ambiguous sentences and metaphors emerged as particularly problematic.
This showed that these students may not only have issues with their working memory and processing words mentally (phonological processing), but also ascribing meaning to those words (semantic processing).  

This new research reinforces the need for removing low-frequency words and unnecessary metaphors by showing how the SEND cohort in particular will benefit from those adjustments.

Digital exams can have a range of accessibility features in-built

At the moment, many students with SEND  are given extra time to complete their exams.

Dr Yasmine El Masri found 65% of all access arrangements are extra time, but many students do not have a chance to practise using it.

Is asking those who find reading or writing difficult to do it for longer the best solution?

Will they suffer from fatigue? Are other solutions such as different types of rest breaks, increasing font size or using subtitles more effective?

Digital exams, unlike the traditional paper format, can record exactly how students work through an assessment.

For example, if a paper is unfinished, we can see if the student ran out of time or were unable to answer questions.

Assessment designers will pore over this data and help us see beyond extra time as a fix all.

It can inform decisions about using accessibility features such as screen readers, subtitles, colour schemes or font sizes.

With all the aids at their disposal, students with SEND and their teachers have the opportunity to choose which is most suitable.

Beyond that, all students, regardless of diagnosis or condition, can have more influence over how assessments meet their needs.

The current system where assessments are designed for mainstream access then modified for students with additional needs can be very complex.

Those with the same condition may have differing needs while those with different conditions may have similar needs.

My take-away from the symposium

The introduction of digital assessment is a key opportunity to embed accessible design for all, increase student autonomy and give those in assessment greater insight into how young people interact with exams.

But as Professor Bryan Maddox cautioned, this is not the complete solution and we have to continue analysing and adapting assessments to keep improving students’ experience.

Read more on this subject:
Let's make it happen: The case for digital exams
On-screen assessment in England's exam system
SEND arts barriers can be broken down

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Making assessment accessible for all
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Inclusion and attainment: Can our research help bridge the gap?