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Tests texts too taxing?

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We were always taught to answer the question in tests but it looks like understanding the question is often a problem in of itself.

Prof Linda Graham, an expert in inclusive education at QUT found that inaccessible instructions pose an obstacle to all students’ achievement.

They also pose an issue of fairness, since their impact is worst for students with learning disabilities such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Development Language Disorder (DLD), not to mention students from other language background.

But there remains strong resistance to the idea of adjustments for students with cognitive or language disabilities. Graham attributes this to “enduring beliefs that these adjustments make the assessment 'easier', giving students with disabilities an unfair advantage."

When it comes to task sheets, though, she says that this “would only be true if the benefit was not universal and if students’ ability to navigate and interpret the task sheet was the core purpose of the assessment.

“Is the purpose of the assessment to grade students on their ability to decipher the assessment task sheet, or to provide an opportunity for students to relay what they know about the text and have learned in the relevant unit of study?”

Some of the problems Graham and her co-authors identified were erratic font sizes and inconsistent layout; contradictory instructions and the jumbling together of important and unimportant information; and the use of highly technical curriculum language, which students were unlikely to have been taught. Such visual, procedural, and linguistic complexity, she says, is particularly distracting for students with ADHD or DLD.

With this in mind, she calls for simpler, less-crowded instructions for assessments, designed to ensure all students understand what is expected of them. Simple steps such as excluding information irrelevant to students, she says, would be a great help. The complete set of recommendations are available in their full paper, linked below.

Professor Graham has little time for the idea that such steps would leave students unprepared for higher study or the workforce:

“I find it hard to imagine many work settings where people would face such confusing instructions,” she says. “As far as testing students’ aptitude for higher education goes, it’s irrelevant; tertiary instructors are expected to write clear and simple instructions. Otherwise students complain.”

Graham points out that part of the reason for the avalanche of information found in high school task sheets was a pressure towards transparency in grading systems – but one that comes at the expense of clarity. She questions whether part of the cause for confusing task sheets might lie in “pressure on teachers to try and meet too many competing agendas.”


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