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How to assess disabled students without breaking the law
Increasingly, academic staff are being asked to make changes to their
teaching methods in order to accommodate the needs of disabled students.
These changes can often seem somewhat unreasonable given the competing
demands on lecturers’ time and the need to maintain academic standards.
However, new legislation introduced in September 2002 requires universities
to respond on an institutional basis and establish a range of methods
in order to provide better opportunities for disabled students. Providing
accessible assessment requires significant consideration of the aims and
learning outcomes of the curriculum however, traditionally changes to
assessment methods for disabled students have been overseen by administrative
staff and central services. A more recent approach which values inclusion
and has universal design as its underlying principle, places the responsibility
at the feet of teaching staff. This article outlines the issues involved
in dealing with the assessment of disabled students and offers ways forward
for departments in developing solutions.
There are a number of reasons why it is important to consider the needs
of disabled students when designing assessment methods. Probably the most
important reason is simply that many disabled students are unable to perform
to the best of their ability because there are barriers in the assessment
methods of their course. If these barriers are not removed there is a
danger that these students will fail or at the very least not obtain the
degree pass they are capable of. Also, the Higher Education Statistics
Agency (HESA) figures show that the number of disabled students enrolled
on courses of HE have doubled in the last five years. It is therefore
becoming increasingly likely that teaching staff will meet a student who
asks for changes to be made in the assessment process. At an institutional
level the Quality Assurance Agency have identified students with disabilities
in a code of practice that they will use to audit universities in the
future. Universities are also facing a legal responsibility under recent
legislation, the Disability Discrimination Act (1995) and an amendment
to Part IV of the Act, the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act
Disabled students however, are only part of a wider picture. HEIs are
now taking a broader range of students than ever before and are being
asked to assess a broader range of skills. Alongside subject knowledge
higher education is now tasked with teaching and assessing, key skills,
practical skills, cognitive and intellectual skills and employability
skills. A broader range of students also means a broader range of educational
experiences and universities can no longer assume that their students
will possess the skills of the students they enrolled 10 years ago; who
to a large extent had shown their tenacity at traditional assessment methods
by the very fact that they had reached higher education. It is quite clear
that traditional end of term unseen written exams and a series of essays
during the rest of the year will not be sufficient to meet the demands
of this new era in higher education.
Educational researchers have pointed out the importance of the assessment
process in higher education. Students are highly motivated by assessment
(Gibbs 1999) and may spend the majority of their out of classroom time
completing them. However, assessment can be used effectively as a teaching
tool in the hands of a skilled academic who 'aligns' the assessment methods
with the teaching and the learning outcomes of the course.
Biggs (1999) outlined such an approach to curriculum design in which
he states that teaching is effective and leads to 'good' learning if the
methods used are aligned with the learning objectives. In order to assess
that this learning has taken place appropriate assessment methods are
also required. Crucial to delivering the curriculum in this way is the
requirement to clearly state the learning outcomes in the first place.
Clear statements of learning outcomes and Bigg's approach may prove crucial
if compliance with SENDA is achieved since parts of the act raise fundamental
questions about the teaching process.
Special Educational Needs and Disability Act (2001) - SENDA
The SENDA was passed through parliament in 2001 and is an amendment to
the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995. Under the DDA universities
are obliged to provide access to goods, facilities and services that are
open to the general public and to write disability statements outlining
their provision for disabled students. However, most areas of HE were
not covered particularly in respect of the teaching and learning environment.
The new act brings in two main duties - not to treat disabled students
less favourably (i.e. not to discriminate) and to make 'reasonable adjustments'.
One would assume that most staff will not go out of their way to actively
discriminate against disabled students and although there might be some
instances when certain accepted policies or procedures would be classed
as unfavourable without individuals necessarily realising, it is the second
duty (providing reasonable adjustments) that is of most concern.
Essentially teaching staff will be required to make changes to their
teaching and assessment methods so that disabled students are not placed
at a disadvantage.
Examples of this might be providing handouts on cream paper to dyslexic
students or allowing a student to sit an examination in a separate room.
The Disability Rights Commission have produced a Code of Practice to help
institutions understand how the act will be implemented and a more illustrative
example is taken from the code:
'A tutor in Zoology delivers one of his modules through a computer-based
learning environment and awards marks for students' participation in
online discussion. The system does not work with a visually impaired
student's software. The student is likely to be placed at a substantial
However, the legislation does provide instances in which a reasonable
adjustment might not be acceptable and these include:
- The need to maintain academic and other prescribed standards;
- The financial resources available to the responsible body;
- Grants or loans available to the student;
- Health and safety requirements;
- The relevant interests of other people including other students.
Many parts of SENDA are open to interpretation and it won't be clear
until case law reaches the courts how these interpretations will develop.
The DDA provides very little in the way of case law that is relevant to
higher education, however, there are other countries, notably the USA
and Australia, where similar legislation has been in force for some time
and from which we can learn. Adams (2001) described some of the cases
that have been brought under the Australians with Disabilities Act (ADA)
which has been in force since 1993. It was noted that many cases won against
institutions were related to teaching, learning and assessment. However,
it should also be noted that the report mentions that few cases ever reach
the courts (being settled financially by the university to avoid publicity)
and that the ADA did not necessarily lead to wholesale change. So, punitive
action can only help us so far along the path since it can lead to an
ad hoc approach with no overriding principle of inclusion or equal participation
Currently universities make changes to the assessment procedure largely
on an individual basis. These changes can be classified using four categories:
- Alternative assessments - such as providing a essay instead of an
- Additional arrangements - such as arranging for a PC to be available
for a candidate during an examination;
- Adjustments/accommodations/adaptations - such as offering a viva.
Each of these approaches has its difficulties and are the cause of much
debate in departments throughout higher education (see Williams &
Ceci for example). Some alternative assessments do not assess the same
learning outcomes as those intended (Sharpe and Earle, 2000). Additional
arrangements cause administrative staff all sorts of headaches because
of the additional workload. Adjustments have been criticised because they
can become out of hand, such as giving double the time (see Zuriff, 2000
for a discussion on the issue of extra time). Presumably combinations
cause problems for a range of reasons!
For the individual student the process can be equally galling. Although
many HEIs have policies which mean there are wholesale solutions such
as extra time for dyslexia the onus is often on the individual student
to request the changes. Medical evidence is usually required which in
most cases has already been provided to the Disability Service. Anything
out of the ordinary requires a lot of negotiation and often the change
cannot be done in time. This can result in students having to appeal to
the exams board and usually these are academic decisions that the student
can do nothing about (eg whether a paper has been marked taking into account
spelling or grammar). These difficulties are not deliberate attempts by
the department to present barriers, rather they are due to a system that
is based on reaction at the point of or indeed after the point of assessment
and based upon decisions of administrative staff who are not best placed
to make them since they often impact on the learning outcomes of the course.
If the current approaches to assessing disabled students are peppered
with difficulties and case law due to the legislation is unlikely to lead
to wholesale change what approach should university staff adopt if they
are to provide alternative approaches? Well part of the answer lies in
the transparency of learning outcomes that Biggs has proposed. If the
law requires academic staff to make judgments on what reasonable steps
they can take in providing reasonable adjustments then they must be absolutely
sure that their learning outcomes are clearly stated and absolutely essential
for the course of study. For example, on a modern languages course how
far could lenient marking be accepted as a reasonable adjustment? In certain
parts of the course it may not be a problem, when writing about a country's
culture say, but if a student was being assessed on their use of grammar
and spelling it would not be reasonable.
There are no easy answers here since there are huge variations in learning
outcomes between universities and subject disciplines. A course on Drama
in one institution might set itself a largely academic curriculum, where
students are assessed using a series of essays throughout their years
at the university and a dissertation at the end. Students may get through
the course without performing in a single stage production. However, in
another institution, a Drama course might be designed in which performance
is the key aspect of learning and the means by which everyone would be
assessed. Written work might be reduced to a minimum.
These issues raise some difficult questions since they ask us to consider
fundamentally what the purpose of our courses are and indeed higher education
itself. Are we here to teach content and assess whether a student can
remember a list of facts; are we here to churn out potential employees
into the professions related to our subject area or is university about
development of a set of key skills which could not be acquired in the
outside world? One thing we can be certain about is that there is a good
deal of work to be done at the course design stage since such questions
can not be answered by administrative staff or at an examination board
when a student questions how fairly they have been assessed.
Innovative solutions and universal design
More recently, universal design has been discussed in the context of
the truly inclusive classroom (Silver et al, 1998). This is an idea, in
which the design of objects, environments, learning situations etc. is
suitable for broad a range of people as possible and where this is not
possible that it is at least compatible with assistive aids, such as specialist
software. Proponents of this approach have noted that when the needs of
disabled people have been considered the solutions often benefit a range
of people. The most oft-cited example being the case of a ramp into a
building which is not only beneficial to people in wheelchairs but people
delivering large packages, caretakers and people with children in pushchairs.
In a teaching context, providing an outline of a lecture before it begins
not only helps deaf, visually impaired and dyslexic students, but is good
teaching practice and will help all your students in their note taking.
As with any model, there are good and bad aspects and the reality of
implementing universal design will be a much more difficult task. Practically
it remains to be seen whether teaching staff will be able to create such
perfect learning environments. On a day-to-day basis when resources are
scarce and competing demands placed on lecturers' time it can be difficult
to accept such radical approaches. However, this approach should at least
be borne in mind as a guiding principle from which to start thinking about
inclusive methods of teaching.
Perhaps staff might ask themselves what teaching methods they can employ
(such as electronic versions of materials) so that they won’t need
to make individual adjustments each time a student comes up with a new
request. Academics are beginning to design some innovative solutions to
this issue in the context of assessment. For example, various methods
might be employed to circumvent the alleged unfairness of extra time -
open book exams, untimed exams, reducing the number of questions that
are marked in an exam. Such solutions are inclusive since they provide
equitable participation to everyone.
Practical examples of inclusive assessment practice are slowly beginning
to emerge. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) has
provided money to a number of initiatives that have sought to improve
provision for disabled students. More recent projects illustrate a paradigm
shift in focus which is moving away from support by central services to
the support that can be provided through delivery and curriculum issues
within academic departments.
Two tools have been developed that can help departments begin to examine
their provision. The SWANDS project in the South West has created an audit
tool which can be used to check that provision is compliant with SENDA
and looks at a broad range of areas from admissions through to professional
bodies. Similarly the Teachability Project has produced a tool which has
more of a focus on curriculum issues and has been used in a range of higher
education providers in Scotland. A new round of project funding has recently
been made available and information about the new projects can be obtained
from the National Disability Team. Many of the projects have a teaching
and learning focus and are based within academic departments including
the 'Achieving Accessible Assessment Project' based at the Nottingham
Trent University. The Learning and Teaching Subject Network Subject Centres
can also be a good starting place for additional support since many of
them have begun to consider the issues relating to disabled students and
some offer small grants for work in this area.
There may well be difficult times ahead for teaching staff and support
services alike as they try to balance providing reasonable adjustments
for disabled students against the threat of court action and public scrutiny
at the hands of the press. Judging by the response to the deaf applicant
who was turned down a place at Cambridge, recent experience shows that
the first institution that ends up in court will be in an unenviable position.
Also, there is no doubt that improving provision in order to comply with
the new legislation will involve extra work. However, many of the solutions,
once they are in place, may ultimately lead to a reduction in time spent
making arrangements each time an individual student is dealt with. Innovative
solutions can also lead to more effective teaching and assessment, which
will increase retention and equitable participation by disabled students
who can become able graduates if given the chance to achieve.
Adams, M. (2001) A Postcard from Australia. National Disability Team
Newsletter, Issue 3, November 2001.
Biggs, J. (1999) Teaching for Quality Learning at University,
Gibbs, G. (1999) 'Using Assessment Strategically to Change the Way Students
Learn', in Brown, S. & Glasner, A. (eds) Assessment Matters in
Higher Education, OU Press and SRHE.
Sharp, K. & Earle, S. (2000) Assessment, Disability and the Problem
of Compensation. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education,
Silver, P., Bourke, A. and Strehorn, K.C. (1998) Universal Instructional
Design in Higher Education: An Approach for Inclusion. Equity and Excellence
in Education, 31,2, 47-51.
Williams. W.M. and Ceci, S.J. (1999) Accommodating Learning Disabilities
Can Bestow Unfair Advantages. The Chronicle of Higher Education,
1999. http://www.chronicle.com/colloquy (viewed on 14th May 2001).
Details on the new HEFCE funded projects examining learning and teaching
issues can be found at:
The SWANDS document on SENDA compliance can be downloaded from:
Information about the Teachability Project and their curriculum audit
tool are available at:
Project Co-ordinator - Demos Project
Learning Support Unit
0161 247 3377
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