In the Leaving Cert & Junior Cycle exams, most of the special access or other arrangements available arise from the state’s duty to provide reasonable accommodations to students. It is called the “Scheme of Reasonable Accommodations in the Certificate Examinations”, or the “RACE scheme” for short.
The purpose of the state examination in each subject is to test how well a student has mastered the course set out for that subject. Sometimes, a disability or other condition can interfere with the way that the examination does this. Either the condition interferes with the student’s ability to understand what they are being asked to do, or it interferes with their ability to show that they can do it.
For example, suppose a condition prevents a student from reading and understanding printed words. This could be because of visual impairment or because of a specific learning difficulty like dyslexia. Unless the point of the examination is to test how well a student can read, then the state examination should not allow this condition to prevent any student from showing what they can do.
The state examiner will therefore arrange to allow the student to overcome this barrier by providing reasonable accommodations. They will provide a person to read the examination paper to the student or help the student to read it themselves, or the student may be allowed to use assistive technology that they usually use to access printed words, such as magnifiers or screen readers.
The accommodated student will still be expected to demonstrate the same standard of achievement as every other student. It is only the way in which they do it that is different. The examinations are not made any easier! The accommodated student still has to show all of the same skills related to the course, just as everyone else does. This ensures that their grade can be directly compared to everyone else’s and have the same meaning. This makes the examinations fair for all.
Not all students with a learning or physical difficulty will need to have special access arrangements made for them. The examinations are designed to make them as clear and straightforward as possible, using well thought-out language and well-designed layout.
Because of this, even if a student has some difficulty with reading, but it is above a certain level, they may not need any special arrangement for the state examinations. Likewise, students with poor handwriting can be reassured that examiners are very well practised at reading poor handwriting.
Vitally, in subjects where spelling is not an important part of what is being tested, the examiners will ignore spelling mistakes. Instead, they will focus on the meaning of what the student is saying. Because of this, writing or spelling would have to fall far below average before it would interfere with the student’s ability to communicate well enough with the examiner.
When making reasonable accommodations in examinations the state will make every possible effort to remove only the access barriers and to leave the purpose of the test entirely intact. However, sometimes the nature of their learning difficulty is doing more than just preventing a student from understanding what is being asked or showing that they can do it.
It might in fact hinder their ability to acquire one of the skills being examined or stop the student from demonstrating that skill in any reasonable way. This creates a problem. If the subject specification states that a student is supposed to have a certain skill at the end of the course and the state ignores that skill when examining and gives a grade, then the certificate is misleading.
So, depending on how important the skill is to the subject being examined, the state might grant an exemption or waiver. An exemption is when the student is excused from taking an entire component of the examination. It only arises where the nature of the condition makes it impossible to take any meaningful part in the component involved, and where no alternative arrangement is possible.
A waiver is like an exemption except that it does not involve an entire component. Most examination components test lots of skills. If their disability prevents a student from developing or demonstrating one or two of these skills, and if it is possible for the examiner to separate out the marks for these skills from the marks for the other skills, then the state can excuse the student from demonstrating the skills involved.
With an exemption or waiver, the student does not forfeit the marks for the skills they were not able to demonstrate. Instead, marks for the remaining elements of the examination are scaled up for the purposes of awarding a grade.
Exemptions and waivers mean that a grade in that subject no longer has precisely the same meaning as the grades of other students because the skills shown are not the same. The state needs to make sure that the certificate it awards remains truthful and so it includes an explanatory note. This is a note that makes clear which of the course-related skills the student was tested on. The explanatory note does not identify the disability or say why the exemption was given. However, a person looking at such a certificate could reasonably assume that the exemption was due either to a temporary injury or a long term condition.
Exemptions and waivers can only be granted where the elements involved are not core elements of the course. This has two aspects:
If a disability or condition that stops a student from developing or demonstrating some skills that might be considered important in a certain subject, it is critical to find out early whether or not these skills can be exempted or waived. If they cannot, and if a student chooses to take this subject anyway, then they will forfeit the marks for these skills and this will limit the grade that they can get.
You should contact your school if you think that your child might qualify for a reasonable accommodation in the state examinations. Closing date for applications for the 2021 Reasonable Accommodations (RACE) Applications is November 20th 2020 for Leaving Cert, and January 22nd 2021 for Junior Cycle. There is a facility for late applications, for more information see www.examinations.ie
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