UK Ofqual: Make Tests Easier for Non-Native English Speakers

Graeme Paton, The Daily Telegraph’s education editor, reports that primary school exams are to get an overhaul to make them easier for foreign-born students to take and pass. Those in charge of writing the exams are now working under new guidelines that require them to use more familiar words and less complex sentence structure when [...]

Graeme Paton, The Daily Telegraph’s education editor, reports that primary school exams are to get an overhaul to make them easier for foreign-born students to take and pass. Those in charge of writing the exams are now working under new guidelines that require them to use more familiar words and less complex sentence structure when composing test questions — all in the name of increased “accessibility.”

Ofqual, the agency and the qualification regulator responsible for the standardized tests administered in British schools, says that the exams taken by the nation’s 11-year-olds need to be put together in such a way as to avoid composite clauses, lengthy sentences and too many verbs. To aid the examiners, Ofqual supplied a list of 1,000 most common words in the English language and encouraged referring to it often as a guide.

According to Ofqual, doing so would “maximize the readability” of the test questions.

The watchdog insisted the guidance – applying to exams sat in England – was needed because “some pupils may not understand some of the words or phrases used in an exam or assessment”. “This could be because English is not their first language or they have a learning disability,” it said.

The new guidance comes in the wake of a report that finds that more than 15% of British students are growing up in a household where the first language is something other than English. Still, there are concerns that in its pursuit of accessibility, the agency is sacrificing the quality and the general rigor of the exams.

Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, Chris McGovern, says that the changes represent unnecessary government hand-holding to accommodate students who in many cases have better English skills than those who have been born and raised in Britain. He added that “dumbing down” the exam to benefit those who grew up in bilingual households is an insult, especially if it means that the exam standards were compromised as a result.

But Ofqual defended the document.

A spokesman said: “It is important that the assessments give all pupils the fairest opportunity to show what they know, understand and can do.

“The guidance, which was developed in partnership with subject and assessment experts, aims to help achieve this, as well as making sure that questions properly assess the skills and abilities they are designed to test.”

The new rules will apply to all standardized exams given to primary school students except those testing reading competency. This means questions on writing and math tests need to be screened for excess “sentence complexity.” The guidelines ask test designers to word question in simpler and shorter sentences that have straight-forward composition and order of subject, verb and object, and also to avoid subordinate clauses.

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