Imagine yourself sitting at a desk in a large hall with hundreds of other students. You’re about to sit an important exam, the results of which are very likely to impact on your future education and employment prospects. Everyone is told to start their exams; you hear the scratching of pens on paper all around you, and the flicking of turning pages. But you can’t see your exam paper. You’re blind. No one has provided you with a braille version of the exam, and you aren’t allowed to have anyone read you the exam questions. You fail the exam, even though you knew the material perfectly. But it’s fair, isn’t it, because you and all the other students sat the exam under the exact same conditions. Right?
Everyone understands what’s gone wrong here. We all appreciate that the exam was picking up on abilities that had nothing to do with the material being examined; the ability to see. The exam’s result tells you nothing meaningful about what the exam was made to test: The subject matter. The exam conditions themselves – a quiet hall, a fixed length of time, etc – are meant to be equalizers, so no one is at an unfair advantage or disadvantage in a way that would ruin the meaningfulness of the score you receive. An obvious advantage would be having a textbook during a closed-book test, or having internet access when no one else does.
Visible and familiar disabilities, the public understands. Of course we make allowances for the deaf, the blind, the physically disabled. Those allowances do not undercut the equality of the exam conditions, they establish the equality, so the exam can function properly. What then of those with “invisible” disabilities? Those with autism, dyslexia, ADHD? Specifically, those with what we label, “learning disabilities.” A type of disability which doesn’t necessarily impact on actual intelligence or the ability to understand a topic, but which does impact on the equality of the exam-room situation? People for whom allowing more time, allowing rest breaks, allowing reader-writer assistance, will enable them to be meaningfully examined on the topic.
We already allow for this quite readily for people who have “normal” functioning, but are under extra strain at the time of examination. For example, we review marks of those who were very ill at the time of the exam and may allow for the mark to be altered to better match their internal assessments. Or take the example of when I was seven months pregnant with my first son, and the university allowed me to take more time in a major exam, to allow for my frequent toilet-breaks while the little man sat on my bladder. This flexibility is a good thing, an honest response to relevant inequalities.
Here in New Zealand, we do allow for those with learning disabilities, to sit their exams in special conditions, according to their need. But it is not treated like a right; you have to pay professionals to aid your case, and the school has to apply on your behalf. You may be refused, and have to appeal. You may be granted support one year, but not the next. You may also have to undergo intelligence assessment, according to a recent complaint by the Dyslexia Foundation of New Zealand, which is an organisation becoming increasingly concerned about a strong trend this year of turning down applicants who have learning disabilities.
The only place I could find reference to intelligence levels being relevant to whether someone receives special conditions for exams or not, was the Ministry of Education’s statement on its website, that low intelligence by itself is not grounds for special assistance. I cannot see how this would ever necessitate intelligence tests for those who have provided proof of learning disabilities. And yet that is apparently exactly what is happening. As the Dyslexia Foundation expresses the point so well: “Beyond the obvious issue of how “intelligence” is relevant at all, the problem with this is that “intelligence” may be masked by learning difference, and any conventional test of intelligence based on a student’s ability to concentrate, comprehend and respond to written material will be impacted by learning difference.”
There is growing anecdotal and professional evidence that an increasing number of students are being denied the assistance. The official word for NZQA (New Zealand Qualifications Authority) who run the process and make these decisions, is that there hasn’t been a drop in approvals, just an increase in those applying. But they admit they don’t have figures for the year yet. Compare this to what professionals are experiencing:
“But psychologist Lynn Beresford said she had seen a big blowout in the number of children being denied learning “accommodations” by NZQA. “I have been doing this for a long time, probably as long as anyone in New Zealand . . . [and] I have been in overload for almost two months because of the declines in accommodations. I have only had about three or four [pupils denied exam assistance] in 15 years. And this year [there have been] over 50 – and I’ve not done anything differently. It’s totally unfair, and for the students the level of anxiety has been enormous.”
Cleary, something is going wrong, and students academic and career futures are going to be seriously impacted by all this. Waiting for end-of-year figures, isn’t going to address the very real and growing concerns right now, and the impact (including costs, stress and time needed for the appeals) is being felt right now too. This issue has been simmering for a while, and has now being getting wider media attention. What does it take for an organisation to recognise and respond to a problem, to at least review its processes and make sure someone along the bureaucratic line isn’t screwing over the future of a bunch of children?
There are already numerous prejudices against those with invisible disabilities, in everyday society and within the education sector. Our children get denied access to schools, based on the ignorance of other children’s parents and unfounded fears. Our kids get excluded, the parents get judged, nothing we do is right: We’re evil for sending our children to special schools because it’s segregating them, or we’re cruel and delusional for sending our kids to mainstream schools because their needs are too high and they’re a drain on the school. Obviously, as this latest issue shows, even once you’re in the school door, you have to keep proving the existence and relevance of the disability.
At the beginning of the post I asked you to imagine sitting a test, blind. Well imagine sitting a test where the letters keep jumbling together, or you can’t coordinate your fingers to move a pen across the page, or the sensory inputs around you that barely register for the other students is setting off an anxiety response so extreme that the student starts harming themselves in the test room. These children might as well be sitting an exam in the dark too, for all the meaning the final result will carry about their ability to understand the subject material. For exams to be meaningful, exam conditions need to be equal – to be fair. Perhaps those refusing these children, need to be examined on the meaning of equality.