English exam boards may be asked to avoid ‘complex language’ | Exams

Exam boards could be asked to avoid using “complex language” including colloquialisms, sarcasm and idioms in assessments to make them more accessible for pupils.

Ofqual, the exams regulator in England, has published draft guidance aimed at tackling the ways in which some pupils are “unfairly disadvantaged by irrelevant features” in exams, making it harder to determine their knowledge, skills and understanding.

This includes pupils who are deaf, blind, autistic and dyslexic, as well as those who have English as an additional language, and those who are unfamiliar with certain humour and customs, as well as housing, family arrangements and certain cultural, social or travel experiences.

The guidance, on which Ofqual is seeking views until 24 January, could come into force in spring 2022 if approved. It would especially apply to assessments that are not seeking to assess the understanding of complex language, such as for maths or other numerical skills-based subjects.

The document recommends that exam boards replace abstract nouns, colloquialisms, metaphors, idioms and sarcasm with language that is “accessible, clear and plain” as well as “unambiguous”.

It adds that source material, context, images and colour in an exam should not “use unnecessary negative, narrow or stereotypical representations of particular groups”, nor should it “advantage of disadvantage any group” of pupils, for example, by relating disproportionately to a particular socioeconomic context where this is not relevant to the assessment.

The document further proposes that images be used only when integral to the assessment, since these can be open to interpretation, while layouts should be accessible and schools should improve their use of assistive technology.

The draft guidance further discourages schools from setting more demanding tasks at the beginning of the exam, which might “demotivate” some learners and prevent them from fully demonstrating the required knowledge in the rest of the exam.

Jo Saxton, Ofqual’s chief regulator, said: “The best interests of students are the compass that guides us. We regulate so that assessments enable every student to demonstrate what they know, understand and can do – without unnecessary barriers. It is crucial that assessments are as accessible as possible for all students.”