Development and implementation of electronic exam papers for pupils with disabilities and additional support needs in Scotland

This paper presents work over 5 years to develop, evaluate and implement Adapted Digital exam papers for pupils with disabilities or additional support needs sitting Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) examinations. SQA is the national awarding body in Scotland and in 2009, 13,041 candidates (8% of all candidates) sitting SQA examinations required “Assessment Arrangements” to help them demonstrate knowledge and skills in external examinations. The most common type of support required (after extra time or separate accommodation) is the use of a reader or scribe; there were 16,554 requests for a reader and 14,197 requests for a scribe.

The aim of this project was to develop and evaluate digital question papers for these pupils. The main questions addressed were:
1.    Would candidates with Additional Support Needs benefit from using Digital Question Papers in examinations?
2.    What features and functions should Digital Papers provide?
3.    What are the advantages and disadvantages of Adapted Digital Papers compared to traditional methods of support such as  reader/scribe?

Adobe PDF was chosen as the format in which to deliver the digital question papers for the following reasons:
•    PDF papers are accessible to the majority of candidates who require Assessment Arrangements in examinations; for example, pupils with:
o    visual impairment can magnify the paper on screen;
o    dyslexia can change text and background colours and use text-to-speech to have the paper read out;
o    physical disability can use keyboard only, or mouse alternatives, to navigate the paper.
•    PDF papers offer interactivity (i.e. candidates can type in answers on screen or use on-screen keyboards, word prediction and speech recognition software), in contrast to eBook formats such as Daisy or ePUB.
•    PDF papers are cost effective for SQA to produce and for schools and pupils to access.

A trial set of papers was created and evaluated by pupils in Autumn 2005 and a small number of candidates chose to use the digital papers ‘for real’ in the 2006 examination diet. The pilot trials were repeated on a larger scale in 2007.

Interviews and feedback from questionnaires indicated that candidates who used the digital papers preferred them to traditional support methods such as reader/scribes. Staff felt that students were more independent, confident and motivated. Administration of examinations with digital papers required fewer staff and rooms than reader/scribes.

Following the success of these pilots, SQA offered digital papers for any candidate requiring assessment arrangements in 2008. Two years later, in 2010, the number of requests for the digital papers has increased by 380%. SQA are the first UK examining body to introduce this type of examination paper.

This project demonstrates a successful approach to ‘mainstreaming’ Assistive Technology. By adopting and adapting a common digital format which can be accessed using free and low-cost tools, we have achieved rapid adoption throughout the Scottish education landscape. Examinations are important for pupils, parents, schools, politicians and society as a whole, and consequently, Assistive Technologies which can both enable greater independence and reduce costs are welcomed. Since pupils who benefit from digital examination papers are also likely to benefit from digital textbooks and learning materials, schools are adopting a more ‘digital’ culture, leading to greater use of Assistive Technologies.