Accessible assessment is a key foundation for fairness. While some special arrangements and modifications (such as extra time and large print) are well-understood, ‘baking-in’ accessibility when papers and questions are at design stage is the direction of travel, as highlighted by Ofqual’s recent consultation on the topic.

We’ve been exploring current practices and potential future developments, focusing on four groups of learners, those with: visual impairment, hearing impairment, specific learning difficulties, and those on the autism spectrum.

The key findings from our reviews raise some interesting points to consider.

Learners with visual impairment

Due to the highly visual nature of the text and content of exams, students with visual impairment (VI) face a unique set of challenges.

There is considerable research in this area and extensive access arrangements available for students with VI. Some of the support on offer includes extra time, modified enlarged papers, modified braille papers and the use of assistive technologies (such as low-vision aids), but challenges remain. Non-standard exam papers may not be compatible with some assistive technologies, such as computer readers and magnification equipment. It can also be a struggle to find modified past papers for student exam preparation.

As some teachers may not be aware of the range of access arrangements permitted for students with VI, exam boards and the regulator need to provide clear guidance to ensure appropriate arrangements are in place for those who need them. 

Learners with hearing impairment

While hearing impairment alone is not a disability, access arrangements may still be necessary and many learners may have additional learning requirements. Organisations such as the British Association of Teachers of the Deaf (BATOD) have set out clear item-writing guidance for all exam papers to ensure access; recommendations include using the active voice and ensuring question context is not only relevant to hearing students.

However, students within this group often underperform at GCSE. and further research is needed to explore why this is the case and whether co-occurring conditions play a role. In some regions, access to proficient communication professionals (previously known as sign-language interpreters) has been highlighted as a key issue.

Learners with specific learning difficulties

Dyslexia and other specific learning difficulties (SpLD) can be hard to definitively identify, which can make it challenging to offer the right support to students. Requirements can also vary extensively, particularly for those with co-occurring conditions. Therefore, a ‘one size fits all’ approach is not appropriate. Indeed, Students report that there is often a failure to connect up the various aspects of their condition when making access arrangements, both in the classroom and in exams. While access arrangements are available for students with SpLD – including extra time, rest breaks, readers, coloured overlays and enlarged papers – there is still much to do to ensure fair access. Where possible, such students should be included within mainstream examinations.

Learners on the autism spectrum

Ambiguity and inferencing requirements in questions cause the most significant accessibility issues for learners on the autism spectrum. Work is still needed to explore the root causes of low attainment for students in this group.

As well as being mindful of how questions are written, access arrangements such as extra time, supervised rest breaks and modified language papers may all benefit learners on the autism spectrum. In particular, some evidence suggests calming breaks, or heavy-work sensory breaks (activities where the body is pushed or pulled against) may help learners to maintain focus in exams.

On screen assessment

Across the different groups, the impact of a potential move to on-screen assessment (OSA) is a recurring consideration. While OSA brings many opportunities to support access needs, it also brings challenges to provide fair access for all learners and ensure digital assessments don’t introduce a new set of inequalities.

Looking ahead, our focus will be on analysing the accessibility requests made by centres, as well as listening to the voices of practitioners, such as teachers and SENCos. We’re keen to find out how the current arrangements work for them and to seek their views on the right direction for supporting learners in the future.

This will mean exploring:

  • to what extent the current arrangements are fit for purpose and whether this differs between subjects
  • what practitioners believe is missing from the current accessibility offer and, in an ideal world, what accessibility arrangements would be available to increase accessibility for different groups of learners
  • Students’  views of on-screen formats and the potential impact on accessibility.

Therefore, exploring how to make assessment more accessible for groups of students who may be disadvantaged by traditional testing formats is hugely important. This will ultimately mean reviewing how the needs of different groups overlap and differ, and exploring the transformative role that digital technologies could play in the process.