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The future of accessible exams

Mark McCusker, Chair of the British Assistive Technology Association (BATA) and Chief Executive of Texthelp Ltd, recently hosted a forum with leading experts from schools, awarding bodies, technology companies and regulators in London to discuss the future of exam accessibility in the UK.  Here he discusses some of the key outcomes from the event, and how the UK can and should be looking to the future.

The topic of exams and setting standards is a highly controversial topic alone, but couple that with how best to assess individuals who have disabilities and require the use of assistive technology, and then you’ve raised the bar yet again.

The UK Association for Accessible Formats (UKAAF) has been commissioned by the regulator Ofqual to develop minimum PDF standards for digital exams, but PDFs are not an agreed upon accessible exam format and accessible PDFs are only available on PCs, not Macs. Therefore students needing assistive technology can frequently struggle to get the help they need in PDF format.  So, what is the future of exams for students with literacy difficulties or visual impairments?

The traditional philosophy in the UK has been towards supporting SEN (special educational needs) students with technology.  Students are given extra time on exams and assistive technology is used to support them, when available.

To date, the goal has been to help disadvantaged students to get through the exam, but, are we looking at this backwards?  It’s our ultimate goal to help each and every student succeed in school and help them make a positive economic impact by bringing them into the workforce regardless of their disability.

Our infrastructure supports struggling students with all forms of disability but the way they are tested is not working and needs to change.  Students with dyslexia or learning challenges should not be tested the same way as other students because they are fundamentally different thinkers, but with the same goals. These students need to be tested on their understanding of a subject or assignment, not using the methods today, with marks deducted based on their spelling or punctuation.

Right now, PDFs are used as the standard exam technology but there is widespread disagreement about the effectiveness of testing students using this standard because PDFs look and function differently depending on the system you are using to view them, putting students at a disadvantage.

The use of PDFs is not maintainable and they will ultimately disappear, but it will take time to convince working bodies and institutions of alternative technologies such as HTML or ePub3, which work best with assistive technology.  We have numerous case studies in North America on the success of using HTML, and the transition to these technologies is coming.  It’s inevitable and it’s important that schools are prepared for this change.  Numerous publishing firms such as Pearson are already implementing HTML with great success.

Also, in order to ensure that all students are being tested on the same playing field, the need to have an identical exam experience no matter the location is a necessity.  If a student is taking an exam on a Mac, they should have the same visual experience as another student on an iPad or a PC, and right now, that isn’t the case with PDFs.  We all know it’s an imperfect world but if you use something like a browser or ePub3, you are a step closer to guaranteeing that.

Jan McSorley of the Pearson Assessment Center in the US, is working on a $400m project called Race to the Top, which is aimed at improving the quality of school assessment including 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 commented.  ”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.”

It was clear from the discussions and conversations at the BATA Forum on the future of exam accessibility that this is a passionate topic for many organisations. At the end of the day, we all share the same goal: to ensure that our students, regardless of learning difficulty, have an equal opportunity to succeed in school and are prepared to enter the workforce when they complete their studies.

It’s our role at BATA to make sure that standards are in place to meet these requirements; to make sure students receiving assistive technology are tested appropriately and given the time necessary to complete exams.

PDFs will not remain the standard exam technology and the time is now to educate teachers on the technologies that will ultimately enable an equal-learning environment for all students.

For further information contact Jessie Wixon at Fishburn on Jessie.Wixon@thisisfishburn.com.