Passing the test: how accessible are public examination systems for blind and partially sighted pupils in the UK
This research was commissioned by RNIB in relation to examination access by blind and partially sighted learners. The research was designed in 2008 in response to the Research Brief prepared by RNIB Corporate Research Team: “Passing the test: how accessible are public examination systems for blind and partially sighted pupils in the UK”. The work was carried out
between April 2009 and July 2010 by a team from the Visual Impairment Centre for Teaching and Research (VICTAR) at the University of Birmingham and CALL Scotland, University of Edinburgh. The research was carried out in two phases:
; Phase 1: International comparison of approaches
; Phase 2: Trialling and functional specification of the RNIB „E-
Phase 1 report (entitled „Summary report on international systems of exam access for visually impaired pupils‟) was presented in September 2009. The research team carried out an online survey in relation to accessibility of public examination systems for blind and partially sighted pupils. The survey gathered information from ten countries beyond England and Wales: Australia, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Scotland and Sweden. Data was gathered in relation to specific access arrangements available in each country (in particular strategies in relation to hardcopy large print, Braille, the
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use of scribes, content modification, and electronic versions of the examination). In addition, the report presents a case study of Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) adapted digital questions papers and their accessibility for visually impaired pupils.
Phase 2 report (entitled „Evaluation of alternative exam
presentation methods for pupils with low vision‟) was presented in
September 2010. Phase 2 had the following research questions: 1. How do the modified large print (MLP) versions of papers
produced by RNIB software compare to traditional MLP papers?
(both process and outcome)
2. What methods of accessing examinations are useful for the
future, and can the RNIB software (or a developed version of it)
play a useful part? (e.g. electronic copies, interactive papers)
The research team carried out five related pieces of research which are presented in turn:
; Student performance and views of alternative examination
papers (linked to research questions 1 and 2)
; Case examples: Students who prefer very large hardcopy print
(N24+) (linked to research questions 1 and 2)
; In-depth interviews with staff involved in material modification
(linked to research questions 1 and 2)
; Group Interviews: Students who are non-print readers (linked to
research question 2)
; Technical analysis of the RNIB E-formatting software (linked to
research question 1)
Summary of findings – Phase 1
The key findings from Phase 1 were:
1. The survey highlighted that providing visually impaired students
with access to examinations is challenging across all the
2. A range of common approaches is used across most of the
surveyed countries (albeit to differing degrees), e.g. hardcopy
large print, Braille, content modifications, extra time allowance,
and use of scribes. These are similar to those approaches
used in England and Wales.
3. The availability of electronic versions of examinations is
relatively common across the surveyed countries. In apparent
contrast, the use of electronic versions of examinations in
England and Wales has been cautious to date.
4. Where electronic versions do not exist (or their format is
restrictive), visually impaired students‟ access to examinations
appears to be threatened because the range of formats they
require is difficult to provide. Therefore, the importance of
electronic versions of examinations seems a critical approach to
enable students to gain access to their preferred format. 5. Sweden in particular appears to prioritise the provision of
electronic versions of examinations over hard copy large print
(and provides visually impaired students with appropriate
access technology and training).
6. Examination content modification appears to be implemented in
all countries surveyed.
7. Such modifications are almost inevitably carried out after the
original examination has been designed. Unless carefully
managed, the modification process can add logistical difficulties
to the preparation of appropriate examination papers for visually
8. While examination modification is recognised as an important
„access arrangement‟ strategy, prolonged work with
assessment designers can lead to examination approaches
being constructed in a more inclusive („universally designed‟)
manner which mean that fewer modifications are required.
Summary of findings – Phase 2
The key findings from Phase 2 were (taking each research question in turn):
1. How do the Modified Large Print (MLP) versions of papers produced by RNIB E-formatting software
compare to traditional MLP papers? (both process and outcome)
a. Findings from a trial involving 21 students with low vision
suggest that examinations that are formatted using the RNIB E-
formatting software neither significantly advantages or
disadvantages student performance compared with existing
MLP approaches. Familiarity with examination format appears
to be a more important variable.
b. Professionals interviewed were broadly positive about the RNIB
; They were positive about having a greater range of options
for examination formats which the software could offer.
; They particularly identified control over page breaks and
formatting of pictures/diagrams as key areas for further
; There were mixed feelings about how the process of
formatting and production could be incorporated into the
short one hour period before the examination. Some had
concerns about technical problems and working under time
c. There is evidence that appropriate and consistent modification
of examinations is of key concern to professionals irrespective
of the method of delivery. The process of producing the
software versions of the examination papers (from four different
examination boards) appears to have an important associated
benefit, namely standardising of the modification process and
the general format of the examination papers.
d. Case examples of five students who preferred very large print
(greater than 24 point) demonstrated that they appear to benefit
from hard copy large print formats which are different from
those available through existing MLP approaches. An
estimated 9% of GCSE-aged students with a visual impairment
in England and Wales use font sizes greater than 24 point.
2. What methods of accessing examinations are useful for the future, and can the RNIB E-formatting software (or a developed version of it) play a useful part? (e.g. electronic copies, interactive papers)
a. When reflecting on the „perfect scenario‟, many professionals
reported that students should have access to examinations
which had been modified appropriately and could then be
formatted in a flexible way to meet individual needs. The use of
technology was seen as an important part of the formatting
solution by all participants (teachers, students with low vision
and non-print readers). This suggests a distinction between
appropriate modification of a paper „at source‟ and the
formatting options that could potentially be provided by the
b. Access to on-screen interactive examinations was seen by both
students and professionals as offering a range of opportunities
for improving access. Nevertheless, further work is required to
enable these opportunities to be developed further. Key
challenges identified through discussion with students (blind
and low vision) as well as professionals included:
; technical work is required to ensure computer-based material
is fully accessible;
; appropriate examination modification is carried out „at
; training of students in the use of assistive technology to
; training of staff to teach students how to use this assistive
technology for exams access.
c. Future development needs to be flexible enough to offer a
range of on-screen formats (e.g. a range of fonts, sizes, colours,
and zoom facilities). They also need to include options for hard
copy versions of questions and/or supporting information such
as diagrams and tables to be produced in a variety of formats.
The research team present two broad recommendations based upon the research findings. The recommendations are made in relation to the project research questions, i.e. particularly linked to the potential of the RNIB E-Formatting software (or similar) in the provision of accessible examination papers. It is important to note that the authors advise that the recommendations are implemented as part of a more general review of examination and curriculum access approaches for visually impaired students in England and Wales, specifically in relation to:
; The procedures and quality control of examination provision
(including the process of modification);
; Curriculum access strategies adopted in the classroom
(particularly in relation to the use of low vision aids and
A software application for supporting the production of an increased range of examination formats for students with visual impairment should be developed. The application would be used by teachers and visually impaired students, and it should have the following functions:
a) a range of formatting options;
b) printing facilities for students who require hardcopy large
c) onscreen presentation facilities for students who require
onscreen access to examinations.
The report provides a draft functional specification for the software application. The RNIB E-formatting software evaluated in this research project provides a very useful prototype of such an application.
The future development of mainstream interactive computer-based examinations presents significant opportunities for improving access to examinations amongst visually impaired students. To ensure that visually impaired students can benefit from these opportunities the following general recommendations are made:
a) Examination boards and designers of computer-based
examinations technology should work with access
technology experts (for example, within RNIB) to ensure that
inclusive design principles are incorporated into the
development of this technology.
b) Developments in computer-based examinations will mean
that educators must continue to ensure that visually impaired
pupils are taught appropriate access skills so that they can
independently access these examinations.
The full reports are available on RNIB website:
Douglas, G., McCall, S., Pavey, S, and Nisbet, P. (2009). Summary report on international systems of exam access for visually impaired pupils. University of Birmingham.
Douglas, G., McLinden, M., and Weston, A. (2010). Evaluation of
alternative exam presentation methods for pupils with low vision.
University of Birmingham.