Five key findings from Ofqual’s research on assistive technology in assessment

Assistive technology admissions

Some exam papers don’t work well with assistive technology, causing “frustration” for teachers students, Ofqual research has found.

The exams regulator has published a new analysis paper looking to “better understand” the use of assistive technology (AT) for pupils with disabilities or impairments and ensure regulation “remains fit for purpose”.

AT includes any device, software or system, such as scanning and reading pens and word processing software.

The number of students using non-interactive electronic question papers, the format most commonly used alongside forms of AT, increased from 9,870 to 22,115 between 2015 and 2019.

Five one-to-one interviews and 11 focus groups of between two to five people were carried out to inform the research.

Here are the key findings.


1. Some exam papers don’t work ‘optimally’ with AT…

Ofqual said teachers and students using AT were sometimes “frustrated because the examination papers do not work optimally with the AT”.

It added that a prime example of this is with non-interactive electronic papers.

Usually, they are provided in a PDF format, but there were concerns about how reliably and universally these files worked across the range of available ATs and whether awarding organisations were doing enough to test this.

The issue related to the various types of screen reader software use by students who have visual impairments.

Students told Ofqual that sometimes their AT failed to identify sub-questions – like 1(a).i – meaning they may miss one. The ‘zoom’ feature can be problematic too, as PDFs can become blurry.


2. …so there’s scope for improvement in design

Ofqual said the problems reported demonstrated there was “still scope for improvement in the design of assessment materials, be they on paper or digital, standard or modified, so that they can be more compatible with ATs and better meet the diverse need of students”.

 “Ideally, close adherence to the principles of universal design would mitigate issues of compatibility between assessment materials and AT,” the regulator said.

It is “therefore important that awarding organisations “continue to strive to ensure that non-standard assessment materials are tested for compatibility across the full range of ATs”.


3. Rules on assistive technology must be ‘flexible’

Ofqual found that reasonable adjustments are usually bespoke to each student, and often involve factors such as the subject, environment and “physical, attitudinal and emotional” condition of each individual.

The process to find the right AT can therefore take time and involve a “degree of trial and error”.

In some cases, a “step up” to an intensive A-level curriculum may see a student needing AT, even if they had been coping without it before.

Ofqual said the interaction between a student and their AT was “usually unique” and often fluctuating “meaning that any rules around the use of AT must be sufficiently flexible”.

assistive technology


4. Schools may not be ‘fully aware’ of how AT could be used

Ofqual said the interviews suggested there may be “grey areas” in the rules and guidance on AT. These are provided by the Joint Council for Qualifications.

For instance, there was uncertainty over whether the use of particular programmes or apps on a tablet computer needed to be deactivated for an exam.

A “significant” challenge is maintaining rules and guidance in an environment where technology advances so quickly.

The “greater risk” may not be that schools fail to follow the rules, risking a sanction, but “rather that schools assume that the rules are inflexible and therefore feel unable to provide the most suitable arrangements for their students”.


5. New statutory guidance on accessible assessments delayed

Ofqual intends to publish new statutory guidance for awarding organisations on “designing valid and manageable qualifications that are as accessible as they can be to all learners who would likely benefit from gaining the qualification”.

It shared a draft with some awarding bodies in February 2020, but delayed plans to consult on the draft guidance because of the pandemic.

The consultation is now expected later this year.

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