New UK regulations on designing and developing accessible assessments

Principles
Design

There’s a well-known saying that every child is a different kind of flower and that together they make the world a beautiful garden. But if every child is different, what does that mean for tests and exams during and at the end of education?

Passing a test is often a gateway to life chances, so it’s important that tests give all young people the chance to demonstrate their capabilities, otherwise our garden world will lose much of its diversity and beauty.

Different countries take varied approaches to making exams more inclusive and equitable. In this blog I’d like to share some recently published regulatory guidance from the UK exams regulator, Ofqual

Much of the guidance is purely pedagogical. But pedagogy and technology are often linked, and much also has a technological impact for those delivering computerized assessments. 

In our work at Learnosity, for example, we must ensure that on-screen layout and instructions are clear and unambiguous for all learners. Images need to be presented in a clear and effective way. Online exams need to be compliant with WCAG 2.1 AA. And all screen formats and question types need to work in practice with screen readers and other accessible technologies. 

For most testing organizations and edtech vendors worldwide, accessibility is obviously no longer a “could” or a “should” have, it’s a “must” have—and an urgent one at that. Click To Tweet

The new guidance can be found here. While its main focus is on accessibility, it also covers other inclusivity issues such as learners who do not speak English as a native language or who have different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. As the chief regulator at Ofqual puts it:

“It’s crucial that assessments in every subject have integrity and are accessible, to give all students a fair opportunity to demonstrate what they know and can do, and to achieve results which reflect this.”

The Ofqual guidelines—a quick(ish) summary

The guidance is well worth reading in its entirety, but here is my summary of the 13 main points it covers:

1. Validity is the overarching principle.

  • An assessment task should only measure what it is intended to measure.
  • It should not require knowledge, skill, or understanding outside the area that it seeks to measure.
  • For example, a test that measures numerical skills should not include complex language in its wording as understanding such language is not an aspect of numerical skills. 

2. Place harder tasks or questions towards the end of an assessment.

  • Putting more demanding questions at the start of an assessment might demotivate some test takers and prevent them from demonstrating their skills fairly.

3. Make instructions on how to answer the assessment clear

  • Keep instruction text short, unambiguous, and in simple sentences.
  • Be direct and use the active voice (e.g. “Answer all the questions”).
  • Avoid instructions that require test takers to hold large amounts of information in working memory

4. Use appropriate and simple language in question wording

  • Complex language can be a barrier to some test takers.
  • Only use complex language if understanding complex language is part of what is being assessed.
  • Avoid use of words that people from some regions, cultures, or socioeconomic backgrounds might not be familiar with.

5. Each sentence in a question should contain just one clause or idea.

  • For example, instead of saying: “Calculate the ratio of the sides of Rectangle A to the corresponding sides of Rectangle B, giving your answer in the form of 1: n.”, use two sentences: “Calculate the ratio of the sides of Rectangle A to the corresponding sides of Rectangle B. Give your answer in the form 1: n.

6. Only use source text or ancillary material when needed for measurement purposes

  • If such material is used, it needs to be chosen so that it doesn’t advantage or disadvantage or stereotype particular groups of test takers.

7. If putting questions in a particular context, ensure the context will work for all kinds of test takers

  • Avoid contexts related to types of housing or family arrangements, or social, travel or cultural experiences that will not be common to all.
  • Be aware that non-native speakers or those on the autism spectrum may be confused or distracted by some contexts.
  • Only use a context if it supports measuring the assessment construct.

8. Only use images or graphics when needed

  • Do not use images if they are only incidental to the question.
  • Use clear images—a line drawing is usually better than a photo.
  • If using images, work out how someone with a visual impairment can answer the question fairly.

9. Some learners may be colour blind, so don’t require distinguishing colours

  • With an exception for rare cases where this is part of what is being measured.

10. Use consistent and clear layouts

  • Keep information relating to one question where possible on the same page.
  • Minimize scrolling to answer a question.

11. Design for accessibility

  • When designing and developing an assessment, anticipate the diversity of the people likely to take it, and what adjustments to provide.

12. Make technology accessible to disabled test takers

  • Ensure that technology meets the WCAG 2.1 level AA standard.
  • Also look at the WCAG 2 supplementary guidance, which includes additional guidance particularly on cognitive and learning disabilities.
  • Test that exams work with common digital or assistive technology (e.g. screen readers) before finalizing them.

13. Embed accessibility and inclusivity within a testing organization’s processes

  • Everyone involved in building assessments should understand the importance of assessment and inclusivity.
  • Monitor how well exams provide accessibility in practice.
  • Consult with a range of learners and those who represent learners to understand their concerns and get feedback to improve future exams.

The full accessibility guidance is embedded in the Ofqual legally mandated regulations at the foot of section D.

A call to action on accessibility

As the guidance itself says: “Designing and developing assessments that are accessible for the widest range of Learners is not always straightforward.”

Ofqual consulted widely in framing their guidance including from specialist organizations for different accessibility challenges. Different sectors and countries may have slightly different perspectives, but the above points and the full guidance will make sense in a lot of contexts.  

For those subject to UK Ofqual regulations, the new guidance is a call to action to significantly improve exam accessibility and inclusivity. This pressure is mirrored in society by widespread expectation that tests need to encourage inclusivity and diversity and be fair for people of all backgrounds. It’s good to see the UK taking a lead in this area.

For those subject to UK Ofqual regulations, the new guidance is a call to action to significantly improve exam accessibility and inclusivity. Click To Tweet

Accessibility and inclusivity is a journey, not a destination. Education is a human right and everyone, including the different and the diverse, deserves an opportunity to obtain educational and workplace life chances. 

For most testing organizations and edtech vendors worldwide, accessibility is obviously no longer a “could” or a “should”, it’s a “must”—and often an urgent one at that.

If you are looking at how to improve the accessibility of your assessment or edtech solution, talk to us. We’ve put many, many thousands of developer hours into getting accessibility right in our assessment engine to simplify the challenges of authoring and delivering accessible and inclusive assessments.

You can learn more about how we do it by downloading your copy of the ebook below. 👇

Learnosity ebook on building accessible learning products

John Kleeman

EVP at Learnosity & Questionmark

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