In November 2014, Abi James, NTC Chair, presented a B.D.A. webinar on Assistive Technology in Examinations. Here are PDF and Powerpoint versions of her presentation.

See related pages about Computer Readers and Exam pens in Examinations.

Published in B.D.A. Dyslexia Contact magazine, September 2013.
See below, the first article, published in January 2013, and Neil Cottrell’s Personal Perspective.

Exam access arrangement update.

by Malcolm Litten, B.D.A. New Technologies Committee.

This June was the first time that a new exam access arrangement GCSE was introduced by JCQ. Any candidate who was given a human reader to assist their access to exam questions could also use text-to-speech as a non-human reader of the text in questions designed to assess reading in GCSE English. In reality, very few candidates used this access arrangement.

Why did this happen?

Schools faced a range of problems, as I witnessed in the four schools I specifically engaged with through the school year. The majority of schools do not provide text-to-speech on their network. One of the four schools finally bought and installed the software too late in the year to offer the access arrangement in the June exam. They plan to offer it this coming year.

The other three schools did already own and use it. The SENCo at the first of these described the response of their I.T. support when they discussed what would be needed on the exam day for the candidates: “They went into meltdown.” There are other access arrangements that require I.T. support: the use of a keyboard rather than a pen, for example, where the I.T. support has to ensure the candidate cannot access a spell check or a dictionary. Schools need to have run the new access arrangement in their mock exams if they are to be confident they can deliver in the real exams.

The second school, much the best equipped and resourced, did get as far as proving to their satisfaction that they could run an exam with text-to-speech available to their candidates. However, the guidance from JCQ indicated that schools would have to produce their own digital version of the exam papers in one hour on the morning of the exam. The Learning Support department decided against running the risk that their candidates would be expecting to work with text-to-speech and yet at the last minute some problem with the exam paper could make this impossible.

Which leaves the one school which did enable its pupils to use text-to-speech. All pupils at this school are equipped with their own netbook on which is installed text-to-speech software. The pupils were familiar with its use. The school contacted the exam board, OCR, and eventually got an undertaking to provide a digital version of the exam papers an hour before the time of the exam. Despite an anxious moment or two on the day, candidates were able to access the exam on their netbooks and use the text-to-speech software successfully. The school admitted they would probably not have had the nerve to do this had I not been around both before and on the day.

I was able to briefly question all 14 candidates after the exam finished. No-one reported any technical problem. One or two found switching between the question paper and the passages, which were in a separate document, rather irritating. But it was clear that everyone had found it helpful and were positive about the experience.

Why is this important?

In its wisdom, the government has decided to return to end-of-course exams as the only form of assessment at GCSE. The absence of coursework or even controlled assignments puts dyslexic candidates at a disadvantage.

In 2011-12, the most recent year for which there are statistics available, there were about 57,000 candidates who used a human reader (roughly 8% of the total candidates taking GCSEs.) The only exam access arrangement for which there are larger numbers is extra time.

Assuming similar numbers this June, that means a realistic estimate suggests at least 50,000 candidates did not get the chance to use text-to-speech in their English GCSE exam who should have done. As we all know, a C grade in English is essential to open many doors to further and higher education.

Equally importantly, the reasoning for allowing this access arrangement is that it is accepted that someone reading with the aid of text-to-speech is working independently. This is a message that needs to be delivered loud and clear to these individuals. In exactly the same way as a paraplegic in a motorised wheelchair or a blind person using a guide dog is acting independently when they go out into the world on their own, so is a person with dyslexia when they demonstrate their understanding of demanding, sophisticated text while using text-to­speech. Reading is far more than simply decoding.

Most of the challenges to schools that I have mentioned will still exist next year. The one that will not is that the exam boards are now committed to providing the digital versions of the exam papers, providing schools have requested them.

If you are going to be a candidate taking GCSE English in June 2014 or a parent or supporter, the time to start ensuring your school will be ready to deliver this exam access arrangement is now. It is the school’s duty to deliver; it is vital you raise it with the school now so that they will ensure it is place in time.

Malcolm Litten.

Download a PDF of the Access Arrangements, Reasonable Adjustments and Special Consideration 2013-2014.

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Published in B.D.A. Contact magazine, January 2013.

Did you know…?

There has been an important change in examination access arrangements for many dyslexic candidates taking GCSE English!

Malcolm Litten, B.D.A. New Technologies Committee Member.

Each year JCQ (the Joint Council for Qualifications) issues guidance on examination access arrangements that can be made for candidates in England and Wales.  This year (2012 to 2013) an important change was announced: candidates entitled to a reader in GCSE examinations are to be allowed to use computer-based text-to-speech to read out the content of questions instead of a human reader, if this is their “normal way of working.”

This is of particular importance in the English examination because a highly significant distinction has been drawn between using a human reader and using text-to-speech software.  Some of the questions in an English examination are specifically designed to test the reading skills of the candidate.  Candidates entitled to use a human reader cannot have this help in the questions to test reading.  However, it has been decided that such a candidate can use a computer reader i.e. text-to-speech, in these questions.  The basis for this difference is explained in JCQ’s guidance by saying that a candidate using text-to-speech is acting “independently.”

A candidate is entitled to a reader (human or text-to-speech software) if they have scored below the average range in a standardised test of their reading.  A standardised score of 84 or less in one of three reading assessments (reading accuracy, reading comprehension and speed of reading) is required.

For the use of text-to-speech to be regarded as the candidate’s “normal way of working” it must be what is used in school tests, examinations and the mock examinations and/or in routine schoolwork.

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The significance of this change.

JCQ’s recognition that use of text-to-speech by a candidate represents “independent” reading is an important development in the way assistive technology is regarded.  Just as Stephen Hawking speaks for himself when he uses a synthesised voice or visually impaired candidates read for themselves when they use a screen reader that also helps them to navigate around a computer, it is now being recognised that dyslexic individuals read for themselves when they use text-to-speech.

There will be those who argue that there is a real difference between my first two examples and the use of text-to-speech by someone with dyslexia on the grounds that the first two are physical and sensory differences that technology assists with whereas the third is a specific learning difference.

Reading is, of course, a complex activity.  It involves decoding, understanding of meaning and, in English examinations at least, the ability to articulate understanding.  There are dyslexic candidates who, despite eleven years of teaching, have not mastered decoding efficiently enough to cope in a GCSE English examination.  However, they may be able to demonstrate adequate understanding through their answers to questions once the text has been decoded.  Is employing assistive technology independently to address the decoding aspect of reading so different from other candidates who use spectacles to successfully decode the print in front of them?

Many people still struggle to see the common features between visible physical differences and hidden brain differences.  They are entirely accepting of the help a blind candidate receives yet question the help a dyslexic candidate is offered.  When someone protests that such help is “unfair,” perhaps we should simply ask how “fair” it is that 10% of the population have to cope with their dyslexia in a literate society for their entire life.  How “fair” is it to legislate to exclude them from further or higher education on the grounds that they failed to get a grade C in English when their intellect makes them entirely suitable to benefit from such education?

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Actions parents need to take.

There are important actions that parents may need to take in the light of this new examination access arrangement:

  • ensure that a proper reading assessment has been completed within 24 months of the examination;
  • demand that the school provides the means to use text-to-speech as the candidate’s “normal way of working”;
  • ensure that the request for this access arrangement is submitted to examination boards in time;  (Although there is a deadline of 21 March 2013 that schools are encouraged to work to, requests can be submitted after this date.)
  • press for text-to-speech and digital examination papers to be available and effectively managed in the examination by the examination centre.

Unfortunately, many examination centres produce their own digital copies of the examination paper independently.  They will only be allowed to prepare this copy one hour before the examination starts.  This is not helpful.  Well over 4000 separate centres could be making digital copies without adequate time to check their quality.  Examination Centres can contact examination boards and request a digital version of an examination paper through their modified paper system. However, examination boards are currently not required to provide digital versions suitable for text-to-speech users so few Examination Centres are using this system.

So a further action that all parents could take is to apply pressure for a more practical arrangement to be established.  JCQ view it as each examination board’s responsibility to decide whether or not to prepare and deliver a digital version of papers.  So the argument can be that in order to guarantee the provision of uniform quality and reliability in digital versions of the papers, the board should produce them, not the examination centres.

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Published in B.D.A. Contact magazine, January 2013.

A Personal Perspective of the Impact of Using text-to-speech in School.

Neil Cottrell, 24, B.D.A. New Technologies Committee Member.

As an established user of text-to-speech (TTS) software I wanted to share why I think it is worth fighting for as a normal way of working in school. Before I started using TTS, my parents would have to read all my homework out to me. Relying on my parents like this was very frustrating, especially when they read out the wrong bit or at the wrong speed. The lack of independence and the extra time that my homework would take often made me feel stupid. In school, I would ask a friend to read things out to me but the constant whisper would distract other pupils! I was really struggling, and it became clear that I needed a better solution.

I first started using TTS at home. This made such a big difference to me – I could do homework on my own without relying on my parents. The TTS voices took a bit of getting used to, but I could adjust the speed and ask the PC to read specific bits back to me. I soon started using TTS at school as well, using a laptop with headphones. This required a bit of notice and considerable time investment to scan textbooks onto my computer, but it was really worth it. Many more books are available in digital format these days, so if you can get hold of them then this will save you some time. Being able to use TTS in school gave me so much confidence – even though I was using a laptop, I stood out much less than I used to, and I could just get on with my work like everyone else. Now that I didn’t have to struggle with reading I could focus my efforts on skills such as critical thinking and analysis that had previously been left behind. Partly because of TTS, I did really well at school and went on to graduate top of my class at university. I would recommend it to anyone who has difficulties with reading, not just those with dyslexia. I still use TTS today at work, and I’m so used to it that I can listen to text much faster than my colleagues can read it!

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© B.D.A. New Technologies Committee. June 2015.
Copies of this page may be made providing it is unchanged and the source is acknowledged.

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