Sitting Exams in the Dark: The Growing Problem with Special Assessment Conditions

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.

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2 Responses to Sitting Exams in the Dark: The Growing Problem with Special Assessment Conditions

  1. This is timely for me. And, unfortunately, I can see both sides because of an unintended series of developments. Ben had to take testing to get into Tech school, even though he was taking courses that didn’t require a high-school diploma. Typically, it would take 2-3 hours, but it was un-timed. He took 5 hours. We were going for his GED next, and I was afraid he wouldn’t pass because so much of it was timed, especially the math portions, which have ALWAYS been his nemesis. He is math dyslexic or dyscalculaic. So–I was looking for him to have accommodations. I put out $600 to have psychological testing done, with the condition that it be done in time to send to the state so his GED testing could be accommodated. That’s what good mothers do, make every accommodation available for their children, grease the wheels of success, so to speak.

    Well, as often happens when you don’t give other enough time to get things done…We decided Ben would have to take the GED unaccommodated. He needed a GED degree to take the classes to the next level, an associate degree and not just a “certification paper”, and he needed it before Fall classes began.. Also, if he took it at that particular time he could do it on a computer, which is rather accommodating of his other “dys”, dysgraphia. STRANGELY…Ben did EXCELLENT on all portions of the GED, earning a place at the 66%-tile for MATH!!! Overall, in comparison to his peers, he scored at the 93rd %tile overall with Science, Social Studies, Reading, Writing and Math portions. (He scored at the 95th percentile or above in the first two.) NO ACCOMMODATIONS. NA-DA. We thought it was brilliant!

    Guess what? A copy of his Psychoeducational Evaluation came in this Monday, in the mail. Ben scored at the 1%-tile in processing speed (there are down-syndrome kids who score much higher, I’m sure. That is mental retardation level, as anything under the 70th %-tile . His symbol search was at the 5th %-tile. His overall IQ, however, was 100. He was so upset.

    “I’m average. I always thought I was smart!” He was a little depressed to be average…

    (The BIGGEST DAMN SURPRISE to me was his Listening Comprehension, where he scored an IQ of 126, or at the 96th %-tile. Who’d of guessed….the little shit)

    What I am trying to say is that if we had gone by Psychological Testing Scores alone….Ben would be considered profoundly retarded in certain areas. We sure as effing hell would not have expected to see him score the way he did. Is Psych testing screwed when it comes to our children’s adaptive response? Are our kids screwed by Psych testing?

    I realize this is only my son. It could be a totally different story for lots of other kids, and the effing Psych (why do they screw our children so?) Testing could reflect their abilities more accurately.

    I will swear upon 100 stacks of bibles that every word of this is true. I am so effing confused…I’d give a million dollars to know what is going on in this kid’s head.

    By the by, we started homeschooling in 9th grade because he came within a tenth of a decimal point of flunking Algebra and having to repeat the 8th grade. We eventually “unschooled”, and sent him to (tech) college what would have been his senior year. He taught himself Algebra online his 11th grade year, and I have no idea what or how he learned because I wasn’t involved.

    How may other kids are like this amazing kid? He never told me, but he was suicidal in 8th grade. Perhaps school doesn’t accommodate their genius. Look up Dr. Linda Silverman’s “upside down brilliance” ideas on visual-spatial genius. You’ll see a picture of Ben, HA! (Just kidding.)

  2. mattyangel says:

    I had a reader writer for all my tests in school, I was in the first group going through NCEA.

    NCEA fails people with special needs, (Well it did) I know something’s have changed but I can’t imagine it changing to much.

    The problem with NCEA is that the learning environment is a group environment. The teacher has been told how much content they need to get through in a year and if they don’t get through it they are in trouble. There is no slowing down, catching up is difficult.

    If you are like me and very slow and struggle with understanding things… not to mention a bit confused on what to do sometimes… the teacher can’t stop to show you and help you… if your to slow, and slowing the class down… its better to cut you off and focus on the majority that get it than the minority that don’t.

    So with NCEA I was told very often by the teachers, if I can’t do it just don’t bother the class and we won’t bother you. I failed most my subjects. The only one I did pass was English.

    Another big problem with NCEA I must point out, is the lack of creativity all I wanted to do in school was Creative writing, and for 1 week every year I got to do it, the rest of the year was all about reading other peoples creative works and writing plot summaries. The one strength I had and the one thing I enjoyed … I never got to do in school. In fact I will go as far as to say that NCEA discouraged it. If you read the curriculum you will see what I mean.

    I also never got to do art… but that’s another story. But I will say if someone is an amazing abstract artist and they fail the level one NCEA art course, they are punished by being denied to continue their love of art… at least that’s how it was when I went through it.

    It wasn’t till I long left school that I really got to spend time writing and being creative. I realize now thinking back on it that NCEA denied me to experiment with what I was good at, try things I wasn’t good at and figure out where my strengths were and weaknesses were. It was impersonal, they were not teaching me… they were force-feeding me…

    I wish I was more vocal when in school, but I barely said a word to anyone… because I had no idea how to start a conversation.

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