In May 2022, Ofqual announced the outcome of a consultation on accessibility in assessment. The product from this consultation was updated guidance on Designing and Developing Accessible Assessments.
The guidance was detailed and covered many aspects of assessment, from the language used to the presentation on either paper or onscreen. But did the guidance go far enough, and what practical advice was missing?
As a leader in transforming print for education, Secure and Confidential Documents (SCD) has had a unique opportunity to collaborate with some of the most knowledgeable teams working on modifying paper-based exams. By combining the knowledge gained from this experience with their deep understanding of digital printing, typesetting and logistics, SCD has developed an exceptional understanding of the topic and is keen to share this with the industry.
In this article, SCD provides additional guidance to help you think beyond the individual test. Instead, we'll help you think about your overall approach to modified paper production.
1. Understand your end goal right from the start
The natural order of test development often means that paper modifications are not directly considered until after the base test has been signed off, and this can be quite late in the day. An Awarding Organisation will likely have a policy in place for what they offer, but this requirement doesn't always filter through to all teams in the test development process.
For instance, a full-colour image printed on an alternative coloured paper may not work as well as it was intended when compared to a version printed on white paper.
Typically, it's not until the exam is print ready that any modified versions are created. With some on-demand papers, with so many variations and test forms in circulation, a modified version may not be created until requested by the candidate. If care has been made in the early stages, then this won't be a significant issue. If it hasn't, then changes can be expensive.
Therefore, before you start writing the first question, we recommend reviewing and updating any policy documents. This could include producing a clear guide for authors so they understand the implications of their decisions at the earliest opportunity.
2. Successful modifications go beyond font and size, but it is not to be overlooked.
Some fonts are better than others for students with visual impairment. Fonts like Arial, which lack the additional 'dress' of Times New Roman, are considered among the best for modified exam papers.
The UK Association for Accessible Formats (UKAAT) suggests 12-point font as a minimum or, ideally 14-point for clear print. For large print, 16-point should be the minimum, but again it goes further to suggest 18 point would be better. In SCD's experience, solely using point size as a measure can be misleading as it depends on the font used.
UKAAF also recommends avoiding italics and underlining within sentences. In addition, large blocks of capital letters should not be used. UKAAT has published a series of valuable resources, including the G003 Guidance. A webinar by UKAAT on the topic is also well worth a watch.
In addition to following this guidance and that supplied by OfQual, it's essential that a modified paper is professionally designed. Simply blowing an A4 document to A3 might cause more problems. Even increasing the font digitally can be problematic.
Without proper care and consideration, basic modification processes can increase barriers and not reduce them.
3. Consistency is key
Consistency across your exam paper suite is essential. Most candidates will take more than one exam from the same organisation; therefore, having the same layout and formatting will reduce the stress and chance of error.
As well as looking at the consistency of exam papers and learning resources within your organisation, SCD would encourage AO's to embrace a more collaborative culture. By setting aside any concerns of losing a competitive edge, we can work collectively to improve the experience for all learners.
Learners in schools and colleges may sit exams set by different organisations. The user experience can be vastly different for all learners. Therefore a collaborative project or even regular discussions involving all stakeholders and experts should be seen as an opportunity for all parties to make positive steps in the right direction.
If an industry-wide initiative seems too much at this stage, it's certainly worth taking small internal steps.
4. Get to know your audience
Central to any user experience project is getting to know your audience, their needs and their challenges. There are many reasons a candidate might need a modified exam paper. It's worth researching these needs and building a complete picture.
Undertaking a research exercise will help you better understand how you need to modify your exam papers to improve the user experience. You will likely uncover many variables, but to make this manageable, you can use personas.
Grouping learners into personas makes the process more manageable, gives your learners a personality and a voice, and helps you appreciate the positive difference you are making. These personas can then be used to test out the options you make available for modified papers.
Any work like this requires careful questioning. Often, the real root of the problem will be masked by a perceived solution, either from your team, centre staff or even the learner. We sometimes focus our minds on a solution only we know to be possible. A trick for uncovering the truth is to politely ask 'Why' at least three times when interviewing a user. This will help you go deeper into the root cause and may result in a cheaper and more effective solution.
5. Consider the booklet design and paper selection
Modifications to an exam paper are not always about the presentation of the text on the paper. Often overlooked is the choice of paper stock and the overall design of the booklet. For example, one of the most distracting features of some exam papers is when the text from the other side of a page shows through. This can be overcome by using a heavier paper weight, but this can sometimes have a broader impact on the costs of distribution and it may even reduce your modification options. For instance, sometimes it can be difficult to source all paper weights in every colour and size. The best option would be to resolve this by layout and design rather than thicker paper. Of course, it's also worth avoiding printing on the back of a test paper, as this can be a security issue. Still, we'll talk about that further in a future article.
The binding can also be an issue depending on the exam paper's thickness. If the document does not lie flat, it can be a distraction and a barrier. In addition, initial research conducted by Pearson has highlighted that A3 printed documents can also be an issue for students, proving difficult to turn and often requiring more space at the centre.
Sometimes, a digital file is provided to the centre for printing at a local location. Although this can be a good cost-saving measure, this approach can often lead to huge differences between regions and countries, ultimately leading to a widening gap in attainment and standards.
6. Ensure centre staff have the proper training to make the most suitable requests
In some cases, staff responsible for requesting modified test papers may not completely understand the options available or which option is best suited for a candidate.
Options for modification, such as enlarged papers and exams printed on different coloured paper stock, are not always available on demand. Therefore, there may be a lead time for providing a modified, printed exam.
Modifying a paper can take time, and different requirements can best be handled in different ways. Therefore, staff managing the requests must know about the options ahead of time and ensure that modified papers are requested as soon as possible.
With many exam providers having multiple qualifications and versions of tests, it's unlikely that all variations of modification will be ready instantly. It's also worth giving the candidate a chance to test out all modifications as part of their test practice.
7. You don't need to work alone to get this right
The last and final thing to remember is that you don't always need a big team to get this right, just the right processes and support. SCD team members work closely with many Awarding Organisations, either providing guidance and support to their internal exams teams or providing services to support the process, such as typesetting and proofreading for paper modifications. The ability to process a modification request and digitally print and dispatch direct to the centre has been a pivotal part of SCD's commitment to transforming print for education.
Any organisation that struggles to keep up with the demands internally for modified exam papers or feels like they could be doing more to support a wider community of learners are welcome to reach out to SCD to discuss their challenges.
This is an important opportunity for all those involved in exam delivery to improve the user experience for every learner.
So, does the new Ofqual guidance for designing and developing accessible assessments go far enough?
It has certainly been a step in the right direction. Still, SCD believes that, as an industry, we should never get complacent and stop trying to improve.
This topic should be on every agenda. There should be a unified approach to modified test development, even more so than ever.
Technology potential and improvements to the user experience are not topics solely for onscreen exams. They are part of the complete digital assessment agenda, regardless of how the exam is delivered.
If you would like more information about the exam modification services and support offered by Secure and Confidential Documents then get in touch.
Please complete your details below to receive a copy of the Remote Certificate Bureau explainer via email. Alternatively, if you want to talk immediately, call (01723) 212052.