Digitising exams – enhancing accessibility for pupils with additional support needs

Using assistive and communication technology to assist pupils with additional needs, CALL Scotland improved inclusivity in schools’ national assessments.

Digital Exams

Research cluster

Equality, Social Justice and Inclusion

Research expert 

Paul Nisbet​

Research centre 

CALL Scotland

What was the problem? 

Between 1995 and 2006, there was a 240% increase in the number of candidates using “Assessment Arrangements” in Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) examinations: from 3,094 candidates (1995) to 10,660 (2006) (Nisbet & Barry, 2008). The most common methods of supports were use of Extra Time, a Reader, and a Scribe. There were three problems however in providing this support:

  1. The use of readers and scribes is expensive as each pupil needs a separate room and an invigilator as well as the scribe/reader.
  2. Using such assistance teaches pupils to rely on others rather than developing independent skills for later life.
  3. Pupils dislike using readers/scribes and would prefer to sit the exam independently.

In addition, pupils with additional support needs (ASN) frequently use assistive technology to access the curriculum at school and at home, and need this option to be provided in assessment contexts. 

What did we do?

Paul Nisbet, in collaboration with Patricia McDonald (SQA), set out to create Digital Question Papers (DQPs) that would enable pupils with ASN to independently sit SQA exams. In line with wider moves within Scottish schools to provide alternative formats to ‘print-disabled’ pupils (Nisbet & Barry, 2007), the team developed electronic versions in Adobe PDF of the hard copy paper, maintaining a similar layout and design and ensuring the assessment itself was unchanged. There are two key differences between the digital and hard copy papers:

  1. The question and answer papers have ‘answer boxes’ so that candidates can type into the paper on screen or use assistive technologies (including on-screen keyboards and speech recognition programs) to generate text.
  2. The papers are ‘speech enabled’ so that candidates with visual or reading difficulties can listen to the text spoken out by the computer.

The digital papers were piloted in 2005 and successful trials in the 2006 and 2007 examination diets led to the introduction of SQA Digital Question Papers in 2008 for candidates with ASN who have difficulty using traditional exam papers. 

What happened next? 

The impact of this research is significant: Digital Question Papers are now used in almost half of Scottish secondary schools (Niebet, 2016). In 2015, there were 13,085 requests for ICT (including 4,802 for DQPs) arrangements; a 327% increase since 2006. In 2014, for the first time, the use of ICT was more common than the use of readers or scribes.

This alternative assessment format has become critical since 2013, when the SQA prohibited the use of human scribes and readers in assessment of reading and writing in the new National Literacy Units. In 2014, CALL were invited to speak at a roundtable convened by the Scottish Government, in which it was noted  that initial concerns about the new arrangements for the National Literacy Units had not been realised.

Scotland was the first country in the UK to provide interactive digital assessments: most GCSE and GCE awarding bodies began offering digital exam papers in 2014, but only Pearson provides interactive assessments.

CALL’s computer reading software is freely available to public bodies, meaning schools, colleges, universities and the NHS do not have to buy a technical speech package. CALL offers continued support through webinars, professional learning courses, and in-school training sessions. Since 2008, approximately 3,400 teachers have attended these in-school sessions.

To address pupil feedback on the quality of the computer voices used in the Digital Question Papers, CALL partnered with CereProc, who created ‘Heather’ (2008) and ‘Stuart’ (2011), high quality Scottish computer voices. Each voice was the result of a talent competition to find a Scottish voice and in 2015 the first Gaelic computer voice, Ceitidh, was also released. This pioneering technology is licensed so public bodies can download and install it for free. In making these voices available on every computer for every learner, Scottish students are able to access the Scottish curriculum using Scottish computer voices. This is a cultural and educational imperative, as Adam Ingram, Minister for Children and the Early Years, pointed out when he introduced ‘Heather’ to Holyrood’s Debating Chamber during the parlimentary debate on the “Right to Read” campaign. 

I personally would like to see digital exams as the default choice for pupils with physical disabilities, and paper, helpers, scribes etc as options that would need to be specially requested, because I believe they [digital exams] are empowering, less difficult to administer and cost-effective. 

Staff feedback

It made me feel more confident.

Student feedback

It was much better not having to spend so much time on my spelling.

Student feedback

I found it much easier to put my answers down on the computer

Student feedback


Audio sample: Heather  Audio sample: Caitlin  Audio sample: Stuart