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Are written tests accessible to all pupils, asks Tandi Clausen-May

Pupils in both primary and secondary schools take a lot of written tests. A test is often a gateway - or rather a hurdle - to opportunity. But pupils with special educational needs are likely to face extra hurdles in any test. They may find it difficult to unravel complex sentence structures, or to take in information from the printed page.

But as the recent Report of the Disability Rights Task Force suggests "where a policy, practice or procedure places an individual disabled pupil at a substantial disadvantage in comparison with pupils who are not disabled, the provider of school education should be under a statutory duty to make a reasonable adjustment so that it no longer has that effect". (From Inclusion to Exclusion: A Report of the Disability Rights Task Force on Civil Rights for Disabled People, Recommendation 4.6, page 5 2) The use of written tests, whether statutory or optional, is a common practice in our schools. What can be done to ensure that they are accessible, as they stand, to the widest possible range of pupils?

Short, simple sentences, carefully designed graphics, and perhaps the use of pictures and speech bubbles in some questions, will make tests much more accessible to a number of pupils. Even such minor changes as raising the font size and using a non-serif font will have an effect for visually impaired pupils - and also for some who just find reading difficult. Such amendments may change the overall appearance of the test, making it look easier - but so long as they do not affect the demand of the questions in terms of the subject being assessed, why should they not be made? They will help to ensure that disabled pupils are not placed "at a substantial disadvantage", so the test will be valid for these pupils.

Two aspects of language which cause problems for many pupils are conditional phrases, and the use of the passive tense. For example:

"Chalk is added to a test tube containing hydrochloric aci. Effervescence is noted. Identify the gas that is released."

"Identify the gas that would be released if zinc, rather than chalk, were added to the hydrochloric acid."

This two-part question, written in pure "Examinationese", is as much an assessment of language as of science. But the question may be rewritten using simpler sentences and clearer layout - see the box above.

The sentences in this version are direct, not passive or conditional - "Jane puts ..." rather than "Chalk is added ..." Jane and Robert have been introduced for two reasons. The first is to enable us to simplify the sentence structures. The second is to signal to the pupil that a new part of the question is starting. Robert's test tube must be distinguished from Jane's test tube. The use of names avoids the need to refer to the first test tube and the second test tube, which some pupils would find confusing.

The diagrams help to explain the situation, and the use of a large, non-serif font, with the essential information picked out in bold, ensures that the question is conveyed clearly. At the same time, the scientific knowledge that is the focus of the assessment has not been compromised.

Much of the work that we do to make tests more accessible to pupils with a range special educational needs is of value to mainstream pupils as well. The well established dictum, "If it's good for special then it's good for mainstream", applies to tests as much as to any other aspect of the curriculum.

The logical inverse, "If it's bad for mainstream then it's bad for special", is also true. A badly structured question will be difficult for many mainstream pupils to access, but it will be quite impossible for some pupils with special educational needs. For these it will be completely invalid - and that is something which test developers must take care to avoid.

Tandi Clausen-May is a senior research officer at the National Foundation for Educational Research. She is currently working on a test development handbook

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