Accessibility in exams and in the classroom

Ted Page, Jon Gibbins and Lucy Pullicino look at progress towards making exams accessible and conclude that smart mobiles could provide some of the answers.

As reported in the leader article of the previous edition of Ability Magazine (issue 91, Autumn 2013), 2013 saw assistive technology (AT) being allowed into GCSE and A-level examination rooms for the first time. However, permitting the use of AT is one thing—ensuring that the exam papers themselves are accessible, both technically and in terms of their content, is quite another. The following takes a brief look at the current state of play and provides an overview of the potential for a newer generation of technologies in this field.

It’s clear that pupils with Special Educational Needs (SEN) are still being outperformed by those without such needs. Office for Disability Issues statistics for 2010/11 show the percentage of pupils achieving 5 or more GCSE or equivalent qualifications at grades A* to C were:Footnote [i]

  • No SEN: 88.9%
  • SEN without statement: 59.2%
  • SEN with statement: 24.9%.

Although these figures are better than those of previous years, there is clearly still a long way to go.

The reasons for these disparities are many and various, but there can be little doubt about the impact of an exam paper that is difficult to read, navigate or otherwise understand using AT.

Technical accessibility

Often the simplest option for making exam papers accessible, given the current state of technology, is a properly tagged PDF. In many cases it’s fairly straightforward to convert an exam paper designed for the printed page to an accessible PDF. Provided the content is created in an accessible way, and provided you have the necessary tagging know-how, a PDF can be created in such a way that AT users should have no problem using it, including inputting their answers.

Inaccessible content

However, as the examples below will show, technical accessibility is not sufficient—the questions themselves may be drafted in such a way that they create barriers.

Generally, text-based exams, such as English GCSEs, present few problems. However, other types of content can be less straightforward. For example, in an informal survey of 20 recent Maths GCSE papers, on average some 25% of the questions themselves contained accessibility issues.

As will be seen, some of these problems can be fixed relatively easily, some may require a bit of thought and the odd workaround, but some may be resolved only by exploiting more modern technologies (more on which below).

Example 1: sub-optimal syntax

Our first example is simply a less-than-optimally worded question:

A cuboid has … faces?

In this case a student using a screen reader would typically hear something like:

A cuboid has edit number of faces type in text faces”.

The structure of this single string of text is:

  1. the first part of the question
  2. instructions on how to answer the question
  3. the remainder of the question.

Without the aid of the visual cues built into the layout of the text, this is likely to be confusing, time-consuming and energy-sapping to deal with.

However, if the wording were changed to:

How many faces does a cuboid have?” …,

the screen reader user would instead hear something like:

How many faces does a cuboid have? Edit number of faces, type in text.

The structure of the reworded question is, of course:

  1. the question
  2. instructions on how to answer the question.

The result is a clear, simple, usable and accessible question.

Example 2: graphs

In the second example, the question is worded as follows:

On the grid draw the graph of y = 2x + 3 for values of x from -2 to 2.Graph showing an inaccessible question

In order to assess how accessible this question is, it is essential to be clear about what aptitudes are being tested for. At a minimum the candidate is required to solve the equation, to calculate different values of y for given values of x, and hence to specify a set of co-ordinates from which to plot the appropriate line.

If this was indeed the only aptitude being tested for, the question could be made accessible to various AT users who certainly could answer by describing in words the process of calculating the required co-ordinates. However, if the examiners also intended to test for the ability to correctly draw a line based on those co-ordinates (and perhaps also to verify that the line accurately represented the equation) then, as will be seen below, this is where PDF will need to give way to newer technologies.

Example 3: measuring a line

Lastly, consider the following question:

Measure the length of the line AB. Write your answer in centimetres in the box provided.”

example of a question that is inaccessible

This is included as an example of a question that’s very difficult or even impossible to make accessible to standard AT using a PDF. It would perhaps be possible to accommodate using older technologies such as tactile graphics and a Braille ruler, but the cost and practical difficulties are likely to be prohibitive.

The future

Education has an exciting future for all students, but in particular technology will allow education to be much more accessible and inclusive. Affordable, smart mobile devices are increasingly offering a high standard of assistive technology, including screen readers, zoom tools, Braille device support and many more innovative features.

Already, there are apps available for iOS and Android devices that help SEN students: large-text and talking calculators; games to help develop literacy, maths and dexterity; augmentative and alternative communication aids; sign language tools, and so on.

In addition, ebooks are making text books more accessible to students, and technologies such as HTML5 and Mathematical Markup Language (MathML) can be used to make even the most complex content accessible. MathML enables mathematical information and structure to be coded so that web browsers, ebooks and apps can accurately portray it, whether visually or through alternative means such as speech or Braille.

Future developments will see apps and ebooks play a more important role in classrooms and exam rooms. The prevalence of touchscreen devices now means that we can provide students with more accessible, interactive learning environments and exam questions.

Take our second example from earlier where students may be required to plot a graph. It is entirely possible to develop interactive graph paper for touchscreen devices. A blind student, for example, could plot graph points using only fingers and spoken feedback from a touchscreen tablet. Alternatively, graph points may be plotted using voice commands: speech recognition software exists that can understand mathematical commands to create graphs.

Data can also be used to generate sounds that aid understanding. Imagine audio graphs in which data is plotted as a musical melody or whistling pitches. Research shows this to be fast and reliable, and is likely to be a much better way for visually impaired students to work with data than traditional tabulation.

The future of education is an exciting area. Innovations are bringing assistive technologies into the mainstream and making them affordable. However, there is certainly a conversation yet to be had between accessibility specialists, technology experts, exam boards and examiners, teachers, students and test centres, to ignite new ideas and drive development forward. We look forward to being a part of that conversation.

[i] Figures from Department for Work and Pensions – Office for Disability Issues [Back]

This article was republished in Ability Magazine Issue 92, Winter 2013.

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