Sunday 23 October 2016

Fairer approach needed to help exam students with special needs

In my opinion by Audrey Halpin

Published 01/06/2016 | 02:30

Audrey Halpin, a lecturer at Church of Ireland College of Education, Dublin
Audrey Halpin, a lecturer at Church of Ireland College of Education, Dublin

Recent reports describe yet another person's court struggle in seeking to avail of appropriate and limited support through the scheme of Reasonable Accommodation at the Certificate Exams (RACE) for the forthcoming Leaving Certificate.

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Such an accommodation is designed to reduce the impact of his disability, so that exams can be an assessment of his learning, rather than a test of how well he can read and process exam material under time pressure. True assessment of knowledge, thinking and achievement, rather than skewed measurement of performance due to extraneous barriers, creates the possibility of proceeding to higher education and an independent life.

Reports indicate that this student's reading has been found to be very deficient when component reading skills were tested in isolation and he has been considered to have a specific learning disability since the age of nine.

Specific learning disabilities (eg dyslexia) seem to be completely misunderstood in our so-called systems of support and accommodation. Systemic responses appear to be based on an erroneous belief that specific learning disabilities are merely skill deficits which children can outgrow.

While adequate and appropriate educational interventions can indeed lead to slight improvements in skills such as decoding and fluency, core disabilities, if present, endure. When the task at hand is to extract key information and provide timed written/oral response for assessment in subject areas, it is necessary to reduce the high levels of stress, effort and inaccuracy in the reading element for these students, so that they can focus on comprehending and demonstrating their learning within the time available.

While it is still time-consuming for many with print-based disabilities to process the information being read and no additional time is available to them, this accommodation renders certain individuals somewhat less disadvantaged in the exam.

In 2000, the Expert Advisory Group on Certificate Examinations demonstrated a progressive and enlightened understanding that earliest identification (ideally from first year) and responsive flexibility would remain essential in deciding upon appropriate exam accommodations for exceptional learners, because of the need to distinguish between a student's achievement and her/his ability to display same under exam conditions.

The overall thrust of this report was that of enabling all candidates to demonstrate their achievements in exams that seriously affect their life chances while also preserving the integrity, status and reputation of exams.

In the 16 years since, the approach seems to have regressed to one of focusing on rigid enforcement of eligibility criteria, treating all candidates in precisely the same way rather than equally.

Other reports on educational participation and progression in Ireland indicate that there are particular issues regarding same for young people who experience socio-economic disadvantages in addition to learning disabilities.

This suggests that the few individuals who have the means and resources to know and to assert their need for accommodations each year are merely a minuscule sample illustrating national disservice rather than extraordinary, isolated cases seeking to score an undue advantage.

Single cases, such as one person with a specific learning disability fighting for an accommodation to access papers in a terminal exam, serves to elucidate a national approach that is more committed to protecting the status quo than to providing equal educational opportunities.

Robust discussion with the experts (people who experience disability every day) could yield a fairer, economical and transparent approach.

Audrey Halpin is a lecturer at Church of Ireland College of Education, Dublin

Irish Independent

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