Assessment Horizons - accessibility and inclusion in assessment

by Guest Blogger, 04 October 2022
What should assessment practitioners be aware of when considering accessibility and inclusion in assessment? Cambridge Assessment Network spoke with Senior Research Managers Sylwia Macinska and Carla Pastorino about universally designed assessment, equity of access and trends in assistive technology.

This discussion first appeared in Perspectives on Assessment, the Cambridge Assessment Network member newsletter, which features key voices from the assessment community along with other member-exclusive content.

There are a wide range of accessibility issues that learners can face and those running exams need to be aware of. The term ‘inclusive assessment’ has also begun to be used – could you give us an overview of the considerations your work looks at, and perhaps an explanation of what is meant by ‘inclusive assessment?

"Some students face difficulties when taking exams, which may stem from a variety of issues not related to their knowledge of the subject, like test format or administration procedures. In such cases, differences in the student's performance may be due to differing access to the assessment, rather than to the student's actual achievement. For some time now, access arrangements have been used to compensate for these difficulties. 

In our work, we have been looking at the effectiveness of different access arrangements and their impact on performance. We have, for example, looked for evidence about the accommodations or access arrangements that have been shown to increase access, provide a more positive experience and/or improve student outcomes in digital assessment.

With growing awareness of different learning and assessment needs, there has been a move towards a universal design for learning and assessment, i.e., a design that is optimised for use by the widest group of students without the need for adaptations. Imagine a student with colour vision deficiencies. They would require support only if test items use colour as the exclusive way of presenting the information. If the assessment is designed in such a way that colour is removed entirely from test materials or used in combination with other indicators, such as hatching, this will no longer be the case. In other words, rather than focusing weaknesses and disabilities of the individual, the universal design approach focuses more on weaknesses and barriers in the assessment and testing environment.  Inclusive assessment tackles assessment at the point of design – looking at all aspects, from the development of marking criteria to the method and mode of feedback – to ensure it does not exclude students. 

Of course, even with a universally designed assessment, there still will be some students that continue to require additional support. But this approach can minimise the need for accommodations. Interestingly, universally designed assessment can benefit all students, not only those with disabilities. It’s a good pedagogic practice for all."

What have we learnt about equity of access from the move to online learning and assessments as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic?

"Digital transformation in education had already started before the pandemic. Online learning can certainly enhance traditional classroom instruction and on-screen assessment can provide a wide variety of accessibility features beyond those available in pen-and-paper testing. However, a rapid transition to online learning and assessment during the pandemic was a crisis response - teachers were required to deliver high-quality instruction remotely regardless of whether they were prepared and regardless of the readiness of their students. This situation certainly brought about several challenges. For teachers, the main issue was limited competency in technology-enabled teaching and the heavy workload that followed this sudden transition. For students, the struggles were more around economic and resource differences such as access to appropriate equipment, poor network connectivity and crowded family homes, all of which perpetuated existing socio-economic inequalities.

It is important to remember though that emergency remote teaching is not the same as planned integration of learning and assessment platforms into teachers’ practice. If the challenges experienced during the pandemic are explored extensively, they can certainly be transformed into opportunities. There is still much work to be done, especially in the context of the online assessment. So far, the evidence is mixed as to whether the digital assessment has an impact on overall student performance. There is also a question of digital literacy of both teachers and students. While contemporary students are digital natives, research shows that everyday digital skills do not necessarily prepare them for PC-based on-screen assessment. Divide in digital literacy exists between countries, within countries with high- and low-income communities and between students with and without disabilities. Until these issues are addressed, we will not be able to make full use of the capabilities of online learning, teaching, and assessment."

What developments or trends in assistive technology – in terms of improving accessibility issues - might we expect to see in the next 5-10 years?

"We will likely see the most impact on learning rather than assessment as it takes time to validate new technology to be used in the context of exams. Improvements in existing assistive technology will definitely continue. For example, the accuracy of speech-to-text devices that convert speech into typed text has increased greatly in recent years and is bound to improve further. We have already seen major developments in assistive technology due to the integration of wireless technology and the Internet of Things (IoT) - networked interconnection of everyday devices, which are often equipped with ubiquitous intelligence. Some examples include robots that aid with visual feedback, tongue transmitters for controlling connected smart devices and sensor networks for people with hearing impairments. More innovation in this space can be expected.

Artificial intelligence will continue to play a pivotal role in the development of assistive technology. I think we will see more personalisation, especially for computer-assisted instruction. Have you heard of intelligent tutoring systems? Initially, the focus was on developing engaging online learning experiences, where an intelligent agent helps a student to progress through the material, providing personalised tips if they get stuck. Now, the potential of intelligent agents is being explored in supporting instruction for students with disabilities and learning difficulties. There is already some initial evidence that smart pedagogical agents can improve focus and increase engagement for autistic students and those with ADHD by monitoring and responding to students’ behaviour in real time, supporting classroom instruction. As these tools get more advanced, they may be able to assess the specific needs of learners and accommodate accordingly, adapting to the user. 

Augmented reality is also one to watch. It has already been explored to enhance physical, cognitive, personal, and social abilities. For example, telepresence can increase classroom attendance and access to educational instruction. It allows learners, who may not be able to attend classes – for example, due to physical disability or extensive medical needs – to experience remote teaching as if they were actually present in the classroom with other students.

Of course, it is not always easy to ensure an equitable distribution of student resources, and this would need to be considered going forward. Advances assistive technology should not be exclusive to students who can afford them."

Sylwia Macinska, Senior Research Manager

Carla Pastorino, Senior Research Manager

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