Exam boards are told to make papers more ‘accessible’ for students

Exam boards have been told to make papers more ‘accessible’ and lay out material in ‘ways that do not disadvantage students’ – as current questions face criticism over a ‘middle-class bias’.

Exam regulator Ofqual has said exams should use clearer language, a clear and consistent layout and ‘source material, context, images and colour in ways that do not disadvantage students’.

English exams may ‘test the use of complex sentence structures, or analogy, inference and allusion’, but the watchdog has said maths exams testing numeracy skills ‘should not contain overly complex text’.

It comes after Ofqual launched a consultation on accessibility in exams in November last year.

At the time, the regulator said pupils may be ‘unfairly disadvantaged by irrelevant features’ that could stop them showing their full potential in a subject.

There was also concern expressed over exams having a middle-class bias, with modern languages or maths exams asking questions about the theatre and skiing holidays.

In 2017, an Edexcel GCSE maths paper asked students about a theatre where ‘each person had a seat in the circle or had a seat in the stalls’.

The question asked pupils to calculate how many of the 2,600 theatre seats were occupied, but pupils would have needed to understand that the circle and stalls are different areas of the theatre to answer correctly.

Ofqual chief regulator Jo Saxton (pictured) today said it is ‘crucial’ for exams in all subjects to be ‘accessible to give all students a fair opportunity

It comes after a report published in 2020 found that some pupils found tasks 'unrealistic or irrelevant'

It comes after a report published in 2020 found that some pupils found tasks ‘unrealistic or irrelevant’

An International GCSE maths paper, also from Edexcel, last year asked students to calculate percentage increases in house prices. 

And a 2019 German GCSE examiners’ report from exam board AQA said ‘some students struggled to state advantages and/or disadvantages of a skiing holiday’.

At the time, a spokesperson for AQA said the exam had questions covering ‘lots of different topics’.

They added: ‘To suggest one question out of five questions on one task creates a cultural bias across an entire exam is false and misleading.’

But a report published by the National Association of Language Advisers in 2020 found that pupils who had to ‘make up’ answers to language questions where they could not draw on their own direct experience were put at a disadvantage.

It also found that some candidates found tasks ‘unrealistic or irrelevant’.

One teacher said in the report: ‘I have bright capable students who struggle with answering many of the questions and I am constantly telling them that their answers don’t have to be true and they can just “make it up”.

‘Unfortunately, however, this makes their learning less meaningful as they are talking about things that are not relevant to them or even true so their willingness and motivation drops.’

The report said topics concerning the topics of family and friends, house and home, holidays, leisure activities, charity and volunteering, lifestyle, social issues and work were seen as the most difficult for poorer pupils.

Ofqual chief regulator Jo Saxton today said it is ‘crucial’ for exams in all subjects to be ‘accessible to give all students a fair opportunity to demonstrate what they know and can do, and to achieve results which reflect this’.

She added that exams ‘must remain rigorous’, but also should not ‘unfairly disadvantage any student because of poor design or presentation’.

Dr Saxtion continued: ‘This isn’t about making exams and assessments easier, but about breaking down the barriers that stop young people achieving their true potential and making sure that exams actually test the things they are designed to test.

‘If an exam is intended to assess understanding of complex language, then of course the questions will use complex language. 

‘But if an exam is assessing numerical skills, it does not need to include complex language which could get in the way of some students showing those skills.’

This is of particular importance for pupils who have special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), she added.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said exam questions should not rely on pupils’ ‘cultural capital, nor should they be overly wordy, but should test the knowledge or skill that is being assessed’.

Geoff Barton (pictured), general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders said exam questions should not rely on pupils' 'cultural capital'

Geoff Barton (pictured), general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders said exam questions should not rely on pupils’ ‘cultural capital’

Charities supporting people with disabilities have also welcomed the new guidance.

Caireen Sutherland, head of education at the Royal National Institute of Blind People, said it is very important for exams to be accessible ‘if all children and young people with vision impairment are to achieve their full potential’.

And a spokesperson for the Autism Education Trust described the move as a ‘positive step towards creating a more inclusive education system’ – recognising that adjustments need to be made to help autistic pupils reach their potential.

They added: ‘This new guidance will also support students from other countries for whom English is an additional language.’

A Pearson spokesperson said: ‘We welcome today’s Ofqual guidance on accessibility in assessment. Since our own internal review in 2017/18 we’ve worked with teachers, parents and students to make the language in our exam papers more accessible and ensure that any contexts used are simple, representative and age appropriate. 

‘We have processes in place, working with practicing teachers and language specialists, to check that scenarios used have no barriers for students. 

‘Our question papers are also reviewed to ensure they reflect our diversity, equity and inclusion principles.’

It comes two days after Ofqual confirmed  that GCSE and A-Level exams will return to pre-Covid rules from next year. 

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk

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