Accessibility in Assessment – Software and eAssessment Design and Critical Factors to Consider

Photo of accessible stairs in Robson Square, Canada

Accessibility in Software and Assessment

The internet plays a huge part in our everyday lives. As we design experiences, we should remember that the internet and associated software should be accessible to all. There are 2.2 billion people in the world who are visually impaired (WHO), who deserve the same access to the same information that everybody else does. In the world of software design, it is critical to keep this thought in mind.

It is not just the world of software that is impacted by this. Accessibility is an essential consideration in designing assessments, in order to ensure that disabled learners have an equal chance to perform at their best while sitting an exam. Recent statistics suggest that over 10% of students indicated that they had a disability in 2017/2018.

Combining the best of software design and assessment design gives organisations the scope to make an examination experience more user-friendly for all. Providing an examination on paper can be restrictive in terms of adaptability for people with different needs. But when an exam is provided on-screen, it opens up a range of possibilities to modify the paper and make it accessible for everyone. Questions can be made more engaging for students, and the range of question types and media that can be utilised is much more extensive in an online environment. It also makes it more straightforward to apply special adjustments for individual students or individual exam sittings, depending on what special considerations must be included, such as increased time to sit the exam.

Visual Impairment and Software Design

Software designers need to understand how a computer system utilises the user’s visual channel. The screen presents patterns of pixels emitting light made up of the three primary colours - blue, red and green. When these colours are present in the same amount, we see white. When none of these colours appear, we see black. If partial mixtures of red, green and blue are involved, we see colour.

Effective human-computer interaction requires that the light patterns formed on the computer screen be successfully processed through a two-stage sequence: the physical reception of the stimulus (the text on a screen) and the interpretation of that stimulus by the user.

For visual perception, there are three things required:

  • Visual acuity – the sharpness of vision.
  • Contrast sensitivity - the ability to distinguish the foreground from the background.
  • Colour perception - the human retina has receptors for red, green and blue light, which give us the ability to perceive more than a million different shades of colour.

People with visual disabilities may have difficulty with these three aspects, which require different modifications in order to be accessible.

How Software Can be Adapted for Assessment Accessibility

Taking this into consideration, the on-screen provision of examinations using a suitable assessment software application will enable various modifications, such as:

  • Providing listen-to-text to speech synthesis of the content: Screen readers are software programs that allow blind or visually impaired users to read the text that is displayed on the computer screen with a speech synthesiser or braille display.
  • Enlarging or reducing text size and images: Screen magnifiers help people who have low vision to read small text and images. The system user interface remains set to its native resolution, and the elements are drawn at standard size. Screen magnification differs from setting a monitor to a lower resolution or even setting the system font to a larger size.
  • Customising settings for fonts, colour, spacing, and layout: Inverted colours apply white text on a black background. This resembles a photo negative for a more complex colour. Colour-blind users can enable grayscale for a more natural distinction between colours.
  • Providing speech recognition devices: These devices usually work with the help of artificial intelligence - the more you speak to it, the faster it learns.
  • Special adjustments and exam timers: When special adjustments are required, extra time to sit the exam should be easily added for specific candidates or for specific exam papers. So if you have a candidate who requires extra time for a number of exam papers, you can add extra time at the ‘user’ level. But if you have a candidate who only requires extra time for one paper, you can also apply this at the ‘paper’ level.

The Assessment Design Process

When designing assessments, accessibility must be addressed early in the process as it affects all subsequent decisions, such as authoring question content and considering the best method to deliver examinations. If accessibility is taken into account from the start, it ensures that your question bank will be relevant and useful into the future, avoiding the need for costly overhauls if questions are not adaptable for different student needs.

It is, of course, important to be aware of what difficulties your students have to be sure that what you provide is suitable. For example, while video questions might be really beneficial for students with dyslexia, there is no point in providing a video question without a linked transcript for deaf students or without an audio description for blind students.

It is already a challenge to design questions that are a reliable and valid measure of knowledge. To do this, while making them adaptable to different needs can be tricky and requires a team of experts to advise on and edit your question writers’ output. The content authoring team should take advantage of any innovative options that exist within the assessment system, e.g. different multi-media question types, new ways of presenting case study material etc.

Choosing Assessment Software for Accessibility

In terms of choosing your assessment software, you need to check what provisions are included. Can rich media questions using video and audio be presented without difficulty? Can video or audio answers be easily uploaded? Does the assessment software make it straightforward to adapt question font, size and colour to assist visually impaired readers? Does a text-to-speech option exist either within the application or via a browser plug-in tool? You also need to check that your software enables you to make these changes on any type of computer or operating system. Also, how easy is it to apply extra time to sit the exam in the case of special adjustments? Can extra time be added at both the ‘user’ and the ‘exam paper’ level?

Linear-on-the-fly testing and Accessibility

When you are developing an item (question) bank, and you wish to automatically generate exam papers from this source using linear-on-the-fly testing tools (where questions are selected for the paper according to pre-set rules), you also have to ensure that the tags applied to the questions include information on accessibility. This means that only accessible questions are selected when required for specific students. If accessibility is the rule by which questions are selected, it is important that a fully representative range of questions are included so that it is an equivalent test of competency. And if there are questions included that are not tagged for accessibility, then you may need to make special adjustments by giving extra time for a specific candidate or exam paper.

User Testing and Practice Tests

User testing is a crucial step to consider. Unforeseen issues may only emerge when students with different disabilities try out the questions. It is extremely important to try out question types and adaptations to confirm if they are accessible to all learners. The ability of software to set up practice tests will also be extremely helpful in this instance. If your assessment solution makes it straightforward to have a library of practice tests with accessibility features included, then your learner population can test the questions and formatting. This will enable your organisation to gather useful feedback while allowing learners to better prepare themselves for the experience of sitting the actual exam.

If you are interested in exploring accessibility in e-assessment further, or would like to discuss the many features included in the TestReach assessment solution that provide for accessibility, you can easily get in touch with the team here.