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 assessments.

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 writing.

"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:

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