Kelli McGraw

21 simple design elements that will make any School Assessment Task sheet accessible

If you have a child in secondary school in Australia, you are probably familiar with assessment task sheets. They outline the task a student has to complete and how it will be assessed. The criteria and standards that will be used to evaluate the performance are included. Often the task sheet will also aim to excite and motivate students to engage with a real-world problem or life-like performance that is relevant and meaningful to them.

Assessment task sheets are really invitations for students to create a performance to show others what they know.

Yet for many students these days, the complexity of the invitation can lead them to give up before they even start. It is a growing problem as assessment task sheets become increasingly complicated documents.

They often now contain a lot of information only intended for adult audiences because they can be used to help justify assessment decisions to parents, and can serve accountability purposes by providing evidence that the teacher has complied with the requirements of a syllabus. So they could feature technical terms from the syllabus and more information than is necessary for student understanding.

For students with language and attentional difficulties, these multiple purposes and the complexity of tasks can present barriers that prevent them from successfully participating in the assessment. Complex assessment task sheets can therefore be unfair.

We believe it is possible to design assessment tasks and write up accompanying assessment task sheets that allow more students to participate than is currently the case. Our research shows design techniques that support teachers to do this.

Currently many teachers spend precious time retrospectively adjusting tasks and rewriting task sheets to give access to students experiencing difficulties. It is a practice that is time-consuming for busy teachers and so is typically only done for students with severe disabilities.

In Australia, however, it is a federally legislated requirement for reasonable adjustments to be made to support all students with disability to access their education on the same basis as students without disability, as described in the Disability Standards for Education.

So we see our work in this field as being relevant to all teachers in every subject and at every level, whenever they are designing and writing an assessment task for their students. If the task is designed and written in an accessible way, students with language and attentional difficulties can do the same task using the same task sheet and teachers will no longer need to create other versions, readjust or rewrite for these students.

But… could this give some students an unfair advantage?

A key barrier to accessible assessment is the fear that reasonable adjustments could lead to a ‘dumbing down’ of the assessment or that they provide an unfair advantage to students with a disability. However, this would only be true if the benefit were not universal or if the main aim of the assessment was to test students’ ability to interpret assessment task sheets.

If accessible assessment tasks are proactively planned and provided to all students, then the benefit is universal. And, if the assessment task focuses on the knowledge or skill being assessed (the first order priority of assessment), then it is still a valid and fair assessment.

Importantly, as Joy Cumming and Graham Maxwell have previously pointed out, when second-order priorities (such as the accountability purposes of assessment) complicate assessment purposes to the extent that the assessment task itself creates barriers to student access and participation, then the result is not a true reflection of that student’s response to the (first-order) purpose of the assessment and the assessment is therefore inequitable.

The challenge is to design assessment that is accessible from the outset of planning, so that teachers can maximise opportunities for all learners to have access to assessment tasks.

Challenges of access that students must overcome

We analysed a typical Year 8 English task sheet and considered the visual, procedural and linguistic complexity of the task sheet design to highlight how some assessment practices may inadvertently affect access and therefore equity.

There are three considerable challenges students must face to correctly interpret an assessment task and successfully demonstrate their learning. These are: –

  • Comprehending what the task is about
  • Working out what has to be done
  • Understanding the parameters in which to do it

Access can be made easier or more difficult depending on the way the assessment task is presented; both in terms of visual presentation and in terms of the language used. The number and type of procedures required can also differentially affect students’ successful completion of the task.

This approach to analysis helped us to produce a list of recommended design elements that will be useful to teachers as they plan and write up their assessment tasks.

Design elements that support making assessment tasks accessible

Visual accessibility

The layout of the task sheet helps the students access the important elements of the task

  • The most important information is easy to find
  • White space is used to separate sections
  • Text size aids readability (11 or 12 point font with 1.5 line spacing)
  • Margins are left-justified
  • Visual cues direct student attention
  • Information that is irrelevant to students is not included

Procedural accessibility

Consistency and clarity of instructions

  • Authentic context is relevant
  • Common access barriers have been addressed in the design
  • The task, objectives and criteria align
  • Students are able to respond within the prescribed conditions
  • Enough space and resources are provided for responses
  • The assessment is scheduled to give students the best opportunity for success
  • Processes for evaluating quality are clear
  • Authentication strategies are included
  • Student feedback on the draft task was sought
  • Teacher peer feedback on draft task was sought

Linguistic accessibility

Directions are clear

  • Instructions are clear and direct
  • Sentences are short and simply structured
  • The language is free of bias
  • Specialist language is defined using student-friendly terms
  • Information is stated once only and if it needs to be referenced more than once, consistent terminology is used

Encouraging results from using these recommendations

We used an accessibility checklist based on these recommendations to support teachers in their assessment design work in two secondary schools participating in our research.

Significantly, teachers who participated in this research reported that students who had not previously found success were able to demonstrate their learning with new levels of confidence.

We believe proactive accessible assessment design has the potential to increase the assessment participation and success of all students, especially those with language and attentional difficulties.

An added bonus is that designing for accessibility from the outset promises to reduce teacher workload due to fewer requests for clarification from students and less need for retrospective adjustments.

 

More in our open access paper Designing out barriers to student access and participation in secondary school assessment

 

Haley Tancredi is a Master of Philosophy (Education) candidate at QUT. A certified practicing speech pathologist, Haley also presently works for Brisbane Catholic Education. Haley’s research and clinical interests are adolescents with language disorder, student voice and teacher/speech pathologist collaboration in inclusive classrooms. Haley is also an active #WeSpeechie on Twitter @HaleyTanc.

 

 

 

Linda Graham is a Professor in the School of Early Childhood and Inclusive Education in the School of Early Childhood and Inclusive Education, Queensland University of Technology (QUT). She coordinates Inclusive Education Theory, Policy and Practice, a core unit in the Faculty of Education’s Master of Inclusive Education. She leads QUT’s Student Engagement, Learning and Behaviour Research Group (@SELB_QUT) and a number of research projects in the area of inclusive education. She can often be found on Twitter: @drlindagraham and at linda.graham@qut.edu.au

 

 

Jill Willis is an assessment researcher and senior lecturer in the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology. She investigates how educators promote learner agency and equity through their everyday assessment practices. You can reach her via Twitter: @JillWteachEd

 

 

 

Kelli McGraw is a lecturer in secondary English curriculum in the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology. Her current research is on the role of social media technologies in engaging first year university students, and the use of online writing for assessment. Previously she worked as a teacher of high school English in South-western Sydney, NSW. Kelli is the Vice President of the English Teachers Association of Queensland. You can reach her via Twitter: @kmcg2375

 

I am a teacher of English teachers and I never want to hear the term “basic skills” ever again

Lecturer in secondary English curriculum in the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology

One cohort at a time, I am doing my bit to erase the misleading, poorly defined, and often destructive term ‘basic skills’ from educational discourse.

I ask my second year student teachers in their first assignment in English Curriculum Studies to explain their philosophy on English teaching and tell me which teaching methods they think are important in 2014.

I warn them, ” If you tell me that you advocate a ‘basic skills’ approach to teaching I will fail your paper.”

I won’t. (I only tell them this afterwards.)

What I am trying to do is make them think deeply about their work as future English teachers. I want them to better articulate what kinds of skills they consider fundamental to living a healthy, happy, literate life.

I believe the discussion and debate this produces is invaluable to their understanding as aspiring teachers in the 21st century.

Why do I bother with this?

The term ‘basic skills’ is an affront to educators like me on many levels.

Firstly, there are the negative connotations of the term ‘basic’. If these skills are so basic, as in ‘boring’ or ‘unintriguing’, we should not be surprised that students don’t flock to master them. Nor should we be surprised when teachers opt not to employ teaching methods that drill students on them, lest they run the risk of boring everyone to death.

Secondly, it belies the complex task of engaging students with learning in areas such as literacy or numeracy. To non-teachers who insist on using the term basic skills I say: if  the job of teaching reading (for example) is so basic, then how about you try it?

I can tell you it involves a lot more than putting sight words up on the wall and setting spelling tests each Friday.

Thirdly, I find when most people talk about basic skills, they do so with very little knowledge of what is currently covered in the Australian Curriculum. ‘Literacy’ and ‘numeracy’ are very clearly listed as two of seven General Capabilities , alongside fields such as ‘critical and creative thinking’ and ‘ICT capability’. This reflects current ideas in education – that the ‘Three-Rs’ alone are not enough to provide a foundation for a productive and meaningful adult life.

Am I just being pedantic?

No, I don’t think so. The terms we use to describe ideas MATTER.

As an English teacher, I know this. I want so desperately for all my students to know this too.

By taking the term “basic skills” away, my students are forced to articulate what it is they actually believe in. If it is indeed literacy and numeracy I wanted them to be able to explain their definition of such terms.

Is it literacy? If so, they can use the wealth of available theory on literate practices and multiliteracies to argue their case.

Is it life skills? If so, the General Capabilities in the Australian Curriculum identify a 21st century set of ‘skills’. These currently underpin Australian schooling and should be explored and debated.

Is it the need for increased rates of adult literacy to promote social justice? If so, then it is time to explore  issues of Indigenous literacy  and global trends .

So what should you do, as one student recently asked, when people insist on using the term “basic skills”?

You could suggest they make a list of basic skills. Most people have no such list in mind (which begs the question – if the skills are so basic, why can’t most people articulate what they are?).

Good bye basic skills!

I know I can’t change the world overnight. But I do hope that by banning the term basic skills from assignments in my own class I can get 100+ students each semester to think deeply about what they might do in their classrooms as qualified Australian English teachers.

And I can tell you there is nothing basic about that.

Kelli

 

Dr Kelli McGraw is a lecturer in secondary English curriculum in the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology. Her current research is on the role of social media technologies in engaging first year university students, and the use of online writing for assessment. Previously she worked as a teacher of high school English in South-western Sydney, NSW. Kelli is the Vice President of the English Teachers Association of Queensland. You can reach her via twitter: @kmcg2375