Exam boards have been given new guidance to make their papers more accessible.
Tests should use clearer language, a clear and consistent layout, and “source material, context, images and colour in ways that do not disadvantage students”, regulator Ofqual said.
While an English exam “might test use of complex sentence structures, or analogy, inference and allusion”, it said “conversely, maths papers testing numeracy should not contain overly complex text”.
A consultation on accessibility in exams opened last November, with Ofqual saying previously some pupils may be “unfairly disadvantaged by irrelevant features” that could stop them showing their full potential in a subject.
Some questions have also been criticised for having a middle-class bias, with modern languages or maths exams testing pupils’ knowledge of the theatre or skiing holidays.
In a 2017 Edexcel GCSE maths paper, candidates were asked about a theatre where “each person had a seat in the circle or had a seat in the stalls”.
The question asks pupils to calculate how many of the 2,600 theatre seats were occupied but pupils would have needed to understand that the circle and stalls are different areas of the theatre to answer correctly.
And an International GCSE maths paper from Edexcel in 2021 asked candidates to calculate percentage increases in house prices.
A 2019 German GCSE examiners’ report from exam board AQA said “some students struggled to state advantages and/or disadvantages of a skiing holiday”.
An AQA spokesman said at the time that the question paper had tasks covering “lots of different topics”.
“To suggest one question out of five questions on one task creates a cultural bias across an entire exam is false and misleading,” they said.
A 2020 National Association of Language Advisers report found that in language questions where pupils had to “make up” answers to questions where they could not draw on their own direct experience put pupils at a disadvantage.
The report said some candidates found tasks “unrealistic or irrelevant”.
“I have bright capable students who struggle with answering many of the questions and I am constantly telling them that their answers don’t have to be true and they can just “make it up”, a teacher said in the report.
“Unfortunately, however, this makes their learning less meaningful as they are talking about things that are not relevant to them or even true so their willingness and motivation drops.”
The report said topics concerning family and friends, house and home, holidays, leisure activities, charity and volunteering, lifestyle, social issues and work were seen as the most difficult for poorer pupils.
Ofqual chief regulator Jo Saxton said it is “crucial” for exams in all subjects to be “accessible to give all students a fair opportunity to demonstrate what they know and can do, and to achieve results which reflect this”.
She said exams “must remain rigorous” but equally should not “unfairly disadvantage any student because of poor design or presentation”.
“This isn’t about making exams and assessments easier, but about breaking down the barriers that stop young people achieving their true potential and making sure that exams actually test the things they are designed to test,” she said.
“If an exam is intended to assess understanding of complex language, then of course the questions will use complex language.
“But if an exam is assessing numerical skills, it does not need to include complex language which could get in the way of some students showing those skills.”
This is particularly important for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), she added.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said exam questions should not rely on pupils’ “cultural capital, nor should they be overly wordy, but should test the knowledge or skill that is being assessed”.
Charities supporting people with disabilities welcomed the new guidance.
Caireen Sutherland, head of education at the Royal National Institute of Blind People, said it is very important for exams to be accessible “if all children and young people with vision impairment are to achieve their full potential”.
A spokesman for the Autism Education Trust said the move is a “positive step towards creating a more inclusive education system” which would recognise that adjustments need to be made to help autistic pupils reach their potential.
“This new guidance will also support students from other countries for whom English is an additional language,” they added.
A Pearson spokesperson said: “We welcome today’s Ofqual guidance on accessibility in assessment. Since our own internal review in 2017/18 we’ve worked with teachers, parents and students to make the language in our exam papers more accessible and ensure that any contexts used are simple, representative and age appropriate.
“We have processes in place, working with practicing teachers and language specialists, to check that scenarios used have no barriers for students. Our question papers are also reviewed to ensure they reflect our diversity, equity and inclusion principles.”