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SQA and Assessment Arrangements into the Future

by Paul Nisbet

on Wed Nov 24, 2021

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The Scottish Government consultation on plans to replace the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) and reform Education Scotland (ES) closes this Friday, 26th November. We have just published a report looking at the application of assistive technologies in examinations which raises important issues around senior phase assessment for the short and the longer term. 

We have been working with SQA for many years on the continuing development of Digital Question Papers and the use of technology as Assessment Arrangements for learners with additional support needs and/or disabilities. SQA asked us to investigate the use of assistive and inclusive technologies by learners who require Assessment Arrangements during the 2020-21 academic session, in the context of changes to assessment of National Qualifications, and our report is now available from SQA Assessment Arrangements and Assistive Technology following Covid-1.

The report is relevant for SQA, learners, parents/carers and teachers for the 2021-2022 academic session, and for any new assessment system and agency that may replace SQA in the future.


The Alternative Accreditation Model (ACM) resulted in a significant increase in the number of individual assessments conducted, which increased workload and complexity of provision of Assessment Arrangements for students with disabilities or additional support needs.

The external examinations in spring 2021 were cancelled and for a range of reasons, students in most cases undertook a larger number of shorter assessments conducted in class. There was no exam leave and so students were in school, and this seems to have added to pressures on teaching and support staff, available accommodation and technology. The task of identifying and providing appropriate support (for example, extra time, readers, scribes, adapted papers, use of technology etc) during the assessments was therefore more challenging than in 'normal' years.

The Covid-19 pandemic and response has driven an increase in the use of digital technology for teaching, learning and assessment. Students in several local authorities have been provided with personal digital devices and Scottish Government has committed that every pupil in Scotland will receive a digital device.

Prior to Covid-19, several local authorities had announced or commenced 1:1 technology programmes for late primary and secondary learners (where each student is provided with a personal device) and Covid-19 accelerated this process. In 2020, Scottish Government provided funding and devices to address the 'digital divide' during school closures, and in August 2021 committed that

all 700,000 school-aged pupils in Scotland will have access to an appropriate digital device, and where necessary an internet connection, to support their learning.

Digital technology is becoming universal in schools and increasingly, learners in senior phase are using digital devices to access learning materials and to create, write and respond. While paper and pen are still appropriate and in many ways, more practical for some subjects and tasks, students will expect to use technology in assessments and examinations. 

Students are using devices based on Windows and iOS and Chromebooks and guidance and policies on technology-based assessment arrangements should reflect this context.

Laptop and desktop computers running Windows were the norm in schools for many years, and SQA policy and guidance around the use of technology as assessment arrangements is primarily aimed at Windows.  Currently, learners in secondary schools in Glasgow, Scottish Borders and Edinburgh are being provided with iPads; pupils in Aberdeen, Highland and Stirling are receiving Chromebooks; some authorities are maintaining Windows OS; others have a mixed economy. There is a need to develop policy and practice to meet this more varied technology landscape.

The research suggests that SQA Digital Question Papers in PDF (particularly question-and-answer papers) were not commonly used by candidates using iPads or Chromebooks in 2020-2021 due to technical, administrative and policy-related factors. Action research with practitioners and students is required to investigate and address these issues.

Challenges we identified around using Chromebooks and iPads with SQA digital question papers and answer booklets include: distributing digital papers and printing when devices are not allowed to be connected to the internet; making devices 'exam secure'; switching off support tools such as spell-check; installing suitable apps for accessing the SQA DQPs; and the lack of Scottish computer voices for iPads and Chromebooks. 

The research indicates that Digital Answer Booklets (DABs) in .docx format do not function correctly on Chromebooks or word processor tools such as Immersive Reader in Microsoft Word. DABs should be re-designed accordingly.

The Digital Answer Booklets in Microsoft Word format do not function correctly when opened in Microsoft's Immersive Reader or Word Online, or in Google Docs. They are also not accessible for students who may use Screen Readers or electronic Braille displays.  

The functionality, accessibility and security of Digital Question Papers and Answer Booklets varies depending on the device and software/app used by students.

The functionality of PDF viewers and readers across ChromeOS, iOS and Windows OS varies across the devices, especially for 'question and answer' papers. Different apps work in different ways. For example on Windows, candidates who do not have permission to use spellcheck can be provided with 'spellcheck off' papers, but the spellchecker still works when the same papers are opened on an iPad or Chromebook. Candidates with reading challenges sitting Gaelic assessments on a Windows computer can use a text reader with the free Ceitidh computer voice, but this is not available for a pupil who is using an iPad. Digital answer booklets in Word format work on Windows but not on Chromebooks.

SQA policies on assessment arrangements and internet access and use of accessibility and learning tools (e.g. spellcheck) do not align with current technologies and practices in schools and should be reviewed and developed in co-operation with practitioners.

Modern digital learning technologies use cloud storage - for example Microsoft Teams and OneDrive or Google Classroom - and these require the internet. New inclusive speech-to-text tools such as Microsoft Dictate or Google Voice Typing also operate over the internet. SQA policy on use of technology in examinations does not permit use of the internet; we think that this should be revised to allow restricted use of the internet provided security measures are put in place to safeguard the integrity of the assessment. This is easier said than done and so working practices should be developed in cooperation with technical, teaching and support staff, and learners.

DQPs and DABs in PDF have functional and accessibility limitations and consideration should be given to creating assessments in other digital formats.

Digital question papers in PDF were originally developed and evaluated in 2007, long before iPads or Chromebooks existed, and in a context where few learners had access to personal digital technology in school. The PDF DQPs can still provide a good option for many learners, but we really need an assessment technology that operates consistently across all operating systems; that can be online and is secure; that allows support tools such as spellcheck, text-to-speech and speech-to-text to be easily switched on and off; and that is accessible for ALL learners with and without additional support needs.

Comprehensive research into the Assessment Arrangements that were provided for students as part of the Alternative Certification Model in 2021 would provide valuable information to inform the development of policy and guidance on assessment arrangements, the use of technology, and Digital Question Papers and Answer Booklets. 

The research that we undertook was quite limited in scope, and there is a real need to conduct larger-scale studies to find out more about the technologies that are being used by learners with additional support needs in class so that assessment arrangements in future can be based on 'the normal way of working'.


The full report is available from SQA Assessment Arrangements and Assistive Technology following Covid-1.



The OECD report published in June 2021 suggested that Scotland could

consider adapting the pedagogical and assessment practices and the structure of learning pathways in the Senior Phase to enhance learners’ experience of upper-secondary education and help them develop CfE’s four capacities continuously

and this was followed by the OECD report  from Professor Gordon Stobart on National qualifications and assessments in August 2021.

In response, Scottish Government notes that possible options include:

  • the development of a Senior Phase qualification system based on a combination of teacher assessment and exams
  • the simplification of S4-5 assessment by “de-cluttering” the historical diet of exams
  • the increased use of online exam resources and oral presentations as an assessment format
  • the inclusion of pupils views in decisions around assessment
  • enhancing the role of vocational qualifications.

If SQA is replaced by a new agency for curriculum and assessment, it is essential that accessibility and the needs of learners with disabilities or additional support needs are designed in to any new Senior Phase qualification system, especially if assessment involves increased use of online exam resources.



Tags: assessment arrangements, sqa, assistive technology

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