From assessment design to delivery, how can technology empower accessibility for all?
Accessibility in assessment refers to the extent to which individuals with disabilities or other challenges can participate in and complete assessments on an equal footing with those who do not have such challenges.As we strive to improve assessment processes with the use of technology, we must ensure that accessibility for all is first in line.
In 2022, nearly 1.5 million students in England were recognised as having special educational needs and requiring additional support such as with speech, language, and communication (GOV.UK). As accessibility needs come to the forefront, this figure is rising. It is our job as educators and assessment providers to place user experience at the heart of software and assessment design to ensure more assessments are more accessible for all.
Traditional paper-based assessments can be restrictive for candidates with accessibility needs such as visual impairments, dyslexia, or attention deficits, as often the same format is provided to all students and accommodations are limited to things like extra time and a quiet environment. This can fall short in offering all students the adaptability in assessment to display their true capabilities. Moving exams on-screen opens up a range of opportunities to make the assessment more accessible, such as adapting question types and media used and adjusting aspects of the assessment to suit each individual.
Design: it is all about the user
With the shift towards digital assessment, the future of accessibility in educational assessment is promising and exciting, with a growing focus on inclusive assessment design that supports the diverse needs of learners. Digital technology can provide a range of features and tools that can help make assessments more accessible, and this starts at the design stage.
Incorporating accessibility UX into platform designs
Software should be created following a user-centred design process. This can be done by drawing from vendor and candidate experience and feedback, using industry best practices, and with reference to relevant standards such as The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and ISO (International Standardization Organisation) 92401* standards where practical.
As part of any vendor's approach to software development, especially when considering special educational needs, software designers should gain an explicit understanding of all user types and their varying work environments. Understanding their specific user journeys, and mapping these journeys out into workflows, the design then starts to come together. It is vital to get hands-on feedback from users at this point and techniques like interviews, case studies, proofs-of-concept, and user forums can be used. This constant engagement with a wide demographic of user types help to refine the design in a series of iterations through to an early version of the new software. Taking advantage of this approach is crucial when aiming to ensure all accessibility needs are met.
By following these guidelines, software platform designers can ensure that their platform is accessible to all users, including those with disabilities. This design can include clear and simple language, providing multiple modalities for response, and offering accommodations by default. This not only makes the platform more inclusive but also ensures that the platform can be used by a wider range of people, reducing the barrier to entry.
* ISO 92401: Ergonomics of human-system interaction: Human-centred design for interactive systems
Ensuring quality of item authoring
Interaction between onscreen readers and item types largely dependson how well the item has been authored. It is important that item types and question styles are tested against common screen readers to establish how each item type responds to use with a screen reader. Ensuring that items are tested against accessibility tools is crucial and any considerations or nuances in item design should be incorporated into the item designer's workflow, methodologyand testing.
How else can digitalassessment technologylevel the playing field?
Technological advancements, such as adaptive testing and artificial intelligence, can help make assessments more accessible and personalised to individual needs. It also embraces more flexible testing formats, such as online and remote testing.
Digital assessments can integrate assistive technology, such as text-to-speech software or speech recognition, to support neurodiverse candidates who may require additional support in accessing or completing the assessment.
Interactive features, such as drag-and-drop activities or simulations, can be used to provide more engaging and dynamic assessment experiences for neurodiverse candidates.
On-screen assessments can facilitate multiple modes of assessment to accommodate different learning styles and abilities. For example, visual and auditory learners may benefit from multimedia content, while those who struggle with reading may benefit from oral instructions or audio recordings.
With customizable settings, neurodiverse candidates can adjust the format, colour, font, and size of the assessment to suit their specific needs and preferences.
e-Assessment can offer alternative response options, such as oral responses or multiple-choice questions, to accommodate individuals who struggle with written expression or processing.
Going digital with assessments can generate more timely and personalised feedback that can help all candidates better understand their strengths and weaknesses and provide insights into how they can improve their performance.
Greater collaboration between educators, assessment designers, disability service providers, and learners themselves can help ensure that accessibility considerations are incorporated into all stages of assessment design and implementation.
The future of accessibility in assessment
Overall, the use of technology in assessments can provide neurodiverse candidates with more accessible and personalised assessment options that better support their learning needs. By incorporating features and tools that enhance engagement, offer customised support, and provide personalised feedback, digital assessments can help to ensure that all candidates have equal opportunities to demonstrate their abilities and potential.
Beyond the technology, if we look to change the way we assess, there will be fewer accessibility considerations to make. For example, putting a stronger focus on performance-based assessments, such as project-based assessments and portfolio assessments, can be more accessible and inclusive than traditional standardised tests. These types of assessments allow learners to demonstrate their knowledge and skills in a variety of ways and can provide more opportunities for authentic, real-world learning experiences.
The future of accessibility in assessment is focused on creating more inclusive and personalised assessment experiences that support the diverse needs of learners, so that intended skills and knowledge are assessed rather than the impact of a disability or accessibility need. This will require proactive collaboration, innovation, and a commitment to equity and accessibility in education from the policy makers and educators to the candidates themselves – we all have a part to play.