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
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
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
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 email@example.com
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