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Removing barriers in assessments - levelling the playing field

3 students of different heights standing on boxes to see over a wall.jpgSacred Heart College in Auckland has been trialling digital assessments and exams.

This year, 22 students with special learning needs/learning differences such as dyslexia, digitally sat their mid-year exams in English, Social Studies, Science, RE and Maths.

The students achieved similar grades to their peers.

In the past these students would have had access to a reader/writer. In the digital exams, the students had accesss to text-to-speech and word prediction software plus the content included drop-down menus, option buttons and text boxes to break up the content.

The content and complexity of the tasks on the digital paper was identical to the print-based papers taken by their peers.

Comments for the students included:

  • "I feel much more confident in the exam room with my computer".
  • "Having the questions read to me enables me to understand what the teacher is asking".
  • "Using word prediction means I am concentrating on the answer not my spelling".
  • "I can listen to the question as many times as I like without worrying about what someone will think of me".

Questions for discussion:

  • How do you level the playing field for all the students in your class or school as you assess for learning?
  • Do you offer different supports/approaches for some students?
  • Could an alternative option for one student be offered to everyone?
  • How could we use the principles of UDL to help us design assessments?

NB: For more details of the story, grab a copy of the Interface magazine dated Term 3 September 2013. Congratualtions to team at Sacred Heart College - sounds like awesome work.


  • Karen (View all users posts) 24 Oct 2013 12:00pm ()

    What a great topic for discussion Chrissie!  There are certainly a lot of things that need to be considered when looking at digital exams.  I think that when looking at how these can be used it is important to consider alternative options since one approach is unlikely to work for everyone.  Are digital assessments going to be accessible for everyone?  How will accessibility to tested and explored, taking into account a range of learner needs?  It is great to these being used successfully by some special needs students and so long as alternatives are available where necessary.

  • Tara O'Neill (View all users posts) 24 Oct 2013 6:35pm ()

    In essence, we want to know what is in the brain of the learner, so what do they know?  Sometimes we want to know the strategies they use to get an answer.  Sometimes the strategies show us more about the intellegence of a learner than the answer. So we need to make sure that the assessment or  supports allow for this.  

    I have noticed with my group of learners that they get tired very easily when needing to transpose what is in their brain into words.  If we can help take away some of the effort of transposing then the student can show what they know and for a longer time.  

    In the workforce, we work to get something done, to create something new, to be productive.  Most of the learners that I know have wonderful ideas and can be very productive.  They are just as teachable as anyone else.  So the earlier we provide a way for them to be successful the less time there is for them to develop a negative response to learning.   

    This week a  psychiatrist told me the following illustration.  He was talking about children who have ADHD.  He said the journey of life  is like putting them into a taxi and starting the tab.  The longer they are in the cab the more it is going to cost.  Similarly, the longer we make it  difficult for students to show what they know, the greater the cost for them in terms of their learning and us in terms of society.  

    I say, lets get on with coming to terms with the real task being asked for and allowing anyone to show what they know in a way which is a strength for them.

  • Tara O'Neill (View all users posts) 24 Oct 2013 8:49pm ()

    http://bit.ly/1a286cK    - Here is a summary of the Finnish Education System which is very inclusive.

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