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Computers say no after security loaded onto exams

Anti-hacking measures to protect exams left additional-needs students potentially unable to use screen-reading software, it has emerged.

Exam board AQA added password protection to digital papers this year to “protect the integrity of exams” following cyber-attack data breaches at three exam boards last year.

But when exams began last week, schools and education technology companies realised the software which reads out exam papers did not work.

Schools only receive the papers an hour beforehand – and say they were given hardly any notice about the password changes. No testing was done with technology companies prior to roll out.

Last year, 121,300 access arrangements for a computer reader or human reader were approved across all exam boards.

‘It removed the accessibility’

Paddy McGrath, head of education strategy at TextHelp which runs two reader products, said AQA had “removed the accessibility of the paper” and “when you click anywhere on the page, nothing works”.

He said AQA had since provided a “workaround”, but it required “significant work” by the exams officer.

Each paper also has a different password, meaning IT administrators must type in an alternative password at each computer, he added.

AQA said it was not aware of any student who had been unable to sit an exam as a result of the issue. But it could face special consideration requests if there were cases where students taking exams had been delayed.

Michael Turner, AQA executive director of customer and product, apologised for the disruption caused to students and “additional pressure this places on exams officers”.

Schools are encouraged to contact AQA if they believe a student’s exam performance has been affected. The board is expected to announce a solution today where password protection can be removed.

‘Small number of schools affected’

The exam board added it was aware “that a small number of schools are experiencing difficulties uploading question papers to certain assistive technology solutions.”

It said TextHelp’s ClaroRead was the only software with a “compatibility issue”, but there have been some “minor speed issues with some other applications”.

AQA added: “For the moment, any school that has issues can get in touch and we will provide them with papers in a form they can use.”

But McGrath said the issue impacted all reader tools. He said three main companies provided the technology and TextHelp offers two of them.

A multi-academy trust senior leader said this “creates an unacceptable situation where some of the most vulnerable learners are disadvantaged as their exam accessibility arrangements are compromised with little time for the centre to react”.

They added AQA’s response was “completely inadequate and they have failed to address the obvious Equality Act implications”.

‘Very disappointed’

AQA said it only gave notice at the start of May to “to minimise the time during which hostile actors might try to circumvent our improved security systems”.

McGrath also said he was “very disappointed” AQA did not test its security measures but said the board was “moving very fast to resolve this”.

In response, AQA said it tested changes thoroughly but “we don’t have a direct relationship with every tech provider and every piece of software they provide to schools”.

Exams regulator Ofqual asked exam boards to introduce new security measures earlier this year.

Two police investigations into the cyber attack at AQA, OCR and Pearson have gone cold. A 16-year-old boy received a caution, while two other people arrested were stood down from bail.

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