Tuesday 6 December 2016

New exam deal for pupils with learning difficulties

State Exams Commission is introducing major reforms in how it deals with applications for support for students with special needs

Published 27/10/2016 | 02:30

Students with special needs who received supports for their Junior Cert will now be guaranteed the same suppports at Leaving Cert. File Photo
Students with special needs who received supports for their Junior Cert will now be guaranteed the same suppports at Leaving Cert. File Photo

It is the last thing that anyone wants on the eve of a State examination. A student with a special educational need taking a High Court challenge because they have not received a support to which they believe they are entitled in order to demonstrate their abilities.

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Such events had become a feature of the run-up to the June exams, not least because they often involved students who had received an accommodation for their Junior Cert and could not understand why it was being refused for the Leaving Cert.

Those dramatic, and traumatic, High Court moments, were a symptom of a system that, while meeting the needs of an ever-growing body of students each year, was also leaving a significant cohort disappointed, and worse, not knowing why.

Last year, about 16,000 students in the Junior and Leaving Cert exams were awarded what is known as a reasonable accommodation - in some cases, two - a figure that has increased hugely over the years .

A reasonable accommodation is an arrangement, which may be made for a variety of reasons, to allow a student with special needs to access exams on an equal basis with other candidates. It could range from providing a magnifier for a student with visual impairment, to allowing a spelling waiver for a candidate with dyslexia, to setting up an exam centre in a hospital.

Overwhelmingly, demand for a reasonable accommodation has been from students with a learning difficulty such as dyslexia, dysgraphia dyscalculia, and dyspraxia.

Although they may excel in other areas, such students can have significant difficulties in areas such as reading, spelling, written language or coordination. When sitting the exam, they may be granted a reader or a scribe or allowed a laptop, or may qualify for a spelling waiver in the marking of the paper.

Despite the growing numbers being awarded an accommodation, the disappointment and confusion experienced by others led, not only to the High Court, but also to the Office of the Ombudsman for Children Niall Muldoon. In June, Mr Muldoon published a report that was critical of the State Examinations Commission (SEC) .

The SEC had started a major review of RACE (Reasonable Accommodation in the Certificate Examinations) scheme in 2015. As a result, big changes are now being made.

SEC officials, along with representatives of the National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS), have been on the road in recent weeks and have explained the new developments to more than 2,000 staff from 750 schools and colleges.

Schools will receive written guidelines by the end of this week and all information about the new scheme will be posted on the SEC website, examinations.ie.

As well as the detailed instructions for schools, for the first time, the SEC has prepared helpful guidelines for students and parents explaining, in plain language, the purpose of RACE and how it works.

Arising from the review, RACE is being transformed, with two major changes being rolled out this year.

The first reform will give certainty: from now on, there will be an automatic carry through of support to the Leaving Cert exams that a candidate was awarded when sitting the Junior Cert. Obviously, the granting of a support for the Junior creates an expectation for the Leaving Cert, and it was when this didn't happen that problems arose.

The only change that now might come at Leaving Cert level is that a candidate awarded an individual centre at Junior Cert may be in a shared centre. It will depend on individual circumstances.

The second significant change will mean that students with a learning difficulty will not need to have a diagnosis to be eligible for RACE. While schools will continue to have to conduct testing of such students to support applications at Junior Cert level, the requirement to do so at Leaving Cert level is being removed.

The combination of both those measures is expected to see about 1,000 more Leaving Certificate students get an accommodation - the cohort who, in previous years, would have been refused a support for the Leaving Cert although they had had one for the Junior Cert.

The way RACE has worked up to now is that it was left to the school to recommend an accommodation for the Junior Cert students, while NEPS got involved in the decision-making process at Leaving Cert level.

While the criteria for determining eligibility for students with a learning difficulty for both exams were the same, a certain rigour that NEPS brought to the exercise for the high stakes Leaving Cert led to those 1,000 students not getting a support.

From now on, the authority will rest with schools all the way through, with an onus on them to respect fully the integrity of the scheme and ensure that supports are awarded only in genuine cases.

RACE applications will be expected to be made on behalf of students whose special needs have already been identified, and who are being provided with appropriate learning supports in schools.

SEC's operations director, Andrea Feeney, says the provision of an accommodation in the exams for such students would be a natural extension of the school experience. In other words, there should be no surprises, for students or schools.

"Schools and the SEC have a responsibility to all students undertaking the exam to ensure that the scheme is fair and administered with the highest standards of integrity.

"This means only applying for RACE accommodations for students whose needs have been identified - who are being provided with learning support and who are eligible," she says.

The SEC will monitor the new arrangements with an eye to ensuring that applications have been made on behalf of candidates whose needs have been properly identified.

THE SEC is committed to helping schools to improve their application procedures, if necessary, but reserve the right to take action, such as refusing application, if it believes the integrity of the exams is threatened.

Exam chiefs are also promising better management of the timelines for RACE applications and decisions and have set end of February 2017 as the deadline for Leaving Cert decisions, and end of April for Junior Cert decisions. Those dates will be earlier in future years. There will be provision for late applications.

NEPS will continue to have a role, although it is changing, and will focus on providing advice and information to schools around the decision-making process and quality assurance issues.

Irish Independent

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