Avoid ‘complex language’ and stereotypes to make exams accessible, says draft guidance

Ofqual launches consultation on draft accessibility guidance for exam boards

Ofqual launches consultation on draft accessibility guidance for exam boards

Exam papers should not use “complex language” when it’s not needed and avoid “stereotypical representations” to make them more accessible, according to new draft statutory guidance. 

Regulator Ofqual has today launched a 12-week consultation for exam boards on designing and developing “accessible assessment”. It had been delayed because of the pandemic. 

Although the regulator said its current accessibility rules were “fit for purpose”, some boards have said they would “welcome additional guidance” on how to comply with the rulebook. 

Ofqual said learners who were most likely to be “unfairly disadvantaged by irrelevant features” in exams, which “can stop them demonstrating the full extent of their knowledge skills and understanding”, included deaf, blind, autistic or dyslexic students, or those whose first language is not English.

Both the British Association of Teachers of the Deaf (BATOD) and the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) reviewed past GCSE exam papers to suggest improvements.

Ofqual also held workshops and looked at responses to the 2020 and 2021 consultations for teacher-assessed grades. 

Instructions should be ‘unambiguous’

The guidance said instructions on how to complete the assessment should be “clear and unambiguous”. These should not make students hold “large amounts of information in their working memory”, unless the assessment means they have to. 

It also said that more demanding tasks at the beginning of exams could demotivate some students, so boards should think about the impact of task sequencing. 

Exams should not include complex language if the task only aims to assess basic numerical skills. Also, boards should use straightforward language, for example “with” rather than “in conjunction with”. 

Unless needed, boards should avoid uncommon words with unusual or irregular spellings, or words that have more than one meaning, like “draw”, “present” or “sound”. 

Ofqual chief regulator Jo Saxton

“Figurative language, including colloquialisms, idioms, metaphors and sarcasm” should also be avoided, the guidance reads.

Source material should not be “longer than necessary” nor advantage or disadvantage any group of learners.

For instance, “if the source text relates disproportionately and in a way that is not relevant to the assessment construct to a particular socioeconomic context”.

It should also not have “unnecessary negative, narrow or stereotypical representations of particular groups”.

Exam boards should also use “the most accessible” type of image available, such as a clear diagram or line drawing, which could be more user-friendly than a photograph or a 3D effect drawing. 

Students urged to respond to consultation

Boards should also consider whether a reasonable adjustment request could raise accessibility issues for a task. For example, how images would be provided in alternative formats, or how screen-reading software would “read” a table of data. 

It follows research earlier this year which found that some exam papers didn’t work well with assistive technology, causing “frustration” for teachers and students. 

Ofqual chief regulator Dr Jo Saxton said it was “crucial” that assessments were “as accessible as possible for all students”. 

“We regulate so that assessments enable every student to demonstrate what they know, understand and can do – without unnecessary barriers.” 

Although the guidance is for boards, Ofqual is urging students and those who represent them to respond to the consultation. It closes on January 24, with the final guidance expected in spring.

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