Creating accessible examinations and assessments for disabled students
2. Reflecting on practice
The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) sets a standard for good practice in
assessing students in higher education. The high standards expressed in
the QAA Code are equally important and relevant to considerations about
assessing disabled students.
QAA in Section 6 Code of Practice, Assessment of Students, says
that assessment strategies should be properly designed and kept under
review (1.i), should be rigorous, consistent and at an appropriate level
(1.ii), that assessment tasks should be effective measures of student
attainment and that policies and practices must be able to guarantee the
validity, equity and reliability of assessments.
QAA in Section 6 Code of Practice, Assessment of Students, also
states that whatever forms assessment takes, good information and
guidance should be available to students and staff (2) and feedback
should be given to students in such a way that they are encouraged and
directed to improve (12).
Assessment has great importance in higher education, both at a symbolic
level and in terms of the real consequences of grades and degree levels for
the students assessed. Given this importance, it is clear that it will generally
be a good thing if the student knows the nature and timing of assessments in
advance. It also follows from modern conceptions of higher education that the
student should know the structure and, at least in general terms, the content of
The traditional nature of the Chinese examination system from time to
time generated a problem of candidates preparing set answers for
formulaic questions. In their turn the examiners went to extraordinary
lengths to set questions in such a way that they would be impossible for
the candidates to understand. When, in the administration of an oral
examination, the examiners realised that they had posed a question
of this type, they cried out "We have outwitted them" (I Miyazaki, China's
Examination Hell: The Civil Service Examinations of Imperial China,
Weatherill, New York 1976, p.21)
We assume, in a word, that the student has a right to be fairly assessed on
what benefit he or she has taken from the discipline. On the other hand, it may
well be that our own approach to assessment falls short of such an ideal:
In a marking exercise Dr X graded a script submitted by a philosophy
student with a B because it seemed to exemplify an energetic and
committed exposition of a view on medical ethics. Dr Y gave the same
script a D grade, partly because it contained historical and medical
inaccuracies, partly because it was full of grammatical infelicities and
the student couldn't spell John Stuart Mill's surname. It appears that the
students were not given any information in advance on the nature of the
criteria to be applied.
Past assessment regimes often set a high premium on the stamina of the
student who would be expected to take many papers consecutively over a
period of a few days. Sometimes an assessment regime was explicitly geared
to the capacity of the average good student to recall information; the late
Prof. Otto Kahn-Freund, in a review of English legal education, suggested
that this consideration underlay what was then the common practice in
English law schools, but anomalous in the general university practice of the
time, of examining students annually, on a (meagre!) four subjects per diet:
Reflections on Legal Education, Modern Law Review, vol. 29 (1966) pp121-
136 at p.132. This is not to say that either stamina or recall are insignificant
attributes, but it may be felt that the assessment system should not be set up
to privilege them over other possible dimensions of achievement.
Thus in the particular case of those disabled students who have reduced
stamina, it becomes important to ensure that both the content of assessments,
and their timing, location and style of administration show sufficient flexibility to
ensure that the assessment fairly measures the relevant skills, understanding
and knowledge. The same goes for students who are dyslexic or who require
additional equipment or assistance to produce text.
In all cases clarity about the assessment objectives will help to determine
appropriate modifications to the assessment or to its administration. Thus,
unless it is explicitly wished to use an assessment as a test of stamina or
endurance under conditions which the student will later meet in professional
life, there is no need to arrange for it to take a very long time or for assessment
components to be bunched closely together. Unless it is explicitly necessary
to test a particular modality of communication, such as oral or written, there is
room for flexibility between modalities, and so forth.
"To encourage students to consider their needs in relation to assessment,
each class outline posted on the website includes description of the
methods of assessment used. A general note to all students, included
on the website, invites advance contact with staff regarding any problem
envisaged in relation to carrying out an assessment."
With sufficient clarity about objectives at hand, it is often possible to devise
alternative ways of assessment which are fair to disabled students. Thus a
student who is unable to work at the pace of her colleagues over a sustained
period may be quite able to complete an examination in extra time, or after a
rest break. A student who has difficulty when faced with a heavy concentration
of text, such as a multiple-choice paper, may be quite able to read and
respond to an essay question. A student unable to participate in an oral group
presentation may have no particular difficulty in producing extended pieces of
"I had four resits in two days. See the third one! I left so I could go home and cry. I was so tired I couldn't do anything."
In general, it may be possible to assess the same ability, skill or knowledge
using disparate assessment methods and instruments.
It is not, of course, only the actual examination or assessment which can be
inaccessible or accessible. Other possible adjustments relate to feedback to
students, perhaps particularly in the case of formative assessment. Where
students access text or other media in alternative ways, adjustments may be
needed to the format in which feedback is usually provided.
"A lot of the time you get comments back, they are completely illegible.
It would be more useful if they sat down with you after they have marked
your essay and said, 'This should be done like this, and that should have
been done like that.'"
Further, since examinations and other assessments are the subject matter of
boards and committees which hear and administer appeals, consideration also
needs to be given as to how the work of these groups will ensure equal access
to their use by disabled students.
Possible modifications to assessments which may be made in particular cases
can be considered under the following headings:
Alternatives to how the assessment is carried out
Alternative timing of assessment
Alternatives to what is assessed
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