Accessibility in Examinations: Here’s what you need to know

Summary: As teachers digitise more and more classroom activities–particularly tests and exams–they need to ensure that all students, including those with disabilities, can participate in them on a level footing.

Could online examinations disadvantage some of your students? It’s a question which every teacher should consider as they digitise the classroom. While digital tests and examinations bring with them a range of benefits, educators need to structure and design them to be as accessible to all students, including those with disabilities, as possible.

“If your digital exams aren’t designed for accessibility, students’ scores may reflect their different physical abilities rather than their actual knowledge or understanding. That’s a situation no teacher wants to find their class in,” says Dan Bowen, Education Solution Specialist. “Although most teachers don’t start knowing much about accessibility, its core principles are simple to pick up and apply.”

In web language, accessibility refers to the degree with which different groups of online users, particularly those with disabilities, can effectively engage with online material. While most major websites follow comprehensive guidelines for accessibility, educators can start with several basics in how they develop tests, quizzes, and exams for their digital classroom. These include:

Support for accessibility tools

Students with disabilities have more tools to help them navigate digital content than ever before, ranging from screen-reading software to Braille devices and more. Make sure they can use those tools in examination situations, especially online ones. Microsoft’s Take a Test software, for example, locks down students’ devices so they can complete their exam without distraction or potential cheating. However, the app also comes with a “Permissive” mode, which lets students access certain other programs – like accessibility tools – during the test. Before using any digital platform to administer exams, check its accessibility credentials and resources on how to configure it to support your students’ special needs.

Sensory aids

Exams often incorporate a range of stimulus materials for students, including images and videos that rely on candidates’ seeing abilities. Teachers should account for the needs of sense-impaired students when choosing these stimulus materials. Adding “alt-text” descriptions of images, for example, allows visually-impaired students to hear an audio description of the image, something that teachers can easily include when developing quizzes or tests in Microsoft Forms. Deaf or hard-of-hearing students will benefit from transcripts of audio recordings. If in doubt, consider the needs of students with known disabilities in your classroom and how they might interact with your draft examinations.

Visual design

Wider text spacing, larger fonts, and high-contrast colour schemes (like white text on black backgrounds) can help immensely for visually-impaired students taking online tests. Other tenets of good design–like keeping text to a minimum, and formatting it in short paragraphs–will also assist students with both physical and learning disabilities.

“Keep in mind that accessibility includes not just physically-impaired students, but also those with issues like dyslexia,” says Dan Bowen, Education Solution Specialist. “If you’re using Office 365 to administer your exams, design Forms or Tests that clearly segment and structure content: it’ll help both groups of students to perform from the same footing as the rest of their cohort. You might break series of questions across different stages, for example, or include more subheadings to organise passages and sequential questions.”

Knowing your students

Not all disabilities display obvious signs, and teachers should take care to create accessible exams and test even if they don’t know of any students who might need them. Those same tests can also reveal when a student might be struggling with a disability, and how teaching staff could help them work through it. “Digital platforms like Forms and Take a Test make it far easier to capture and analyse exam results for students and cohorts over time,” says Dan Bowen, Education Solution Specialist. “If you see sudden abnormalities in a student’s test scores, talk to them! Regardless of the situation, this will help in getting your students to better outcomes, but it’s especially valuable in discovering disabilities early and giving your students the support they may need.”

Want to know more? Read our 10 tips for creating more accessible digital content, not just exams, on the Microsoft Education Blog.

Other classroom technologies are now also available – have you heard of Microsoft’s Take a Test app? Ever used Microsoft Forms?

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