We all have a right to be treated equally. So if a person with a disability has difficulty in accessing a service in the usual way, the service provider has a duty to make reasonable accommodations to ensure that service is available to as many people as possible.
In the Leaving & Junior Certificate 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 affects 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 affects a student reading and understanding printed words. This could be because of a visual impairment or because of a specific learning difficulty like dyslexia. Unless the point of the exam is to test how well a student can read, then the state examination should not allow this condition stop any student from showing what they can do. The state examiner will therefore make reasonable accommodations to allow the student to overcome this barrier. They will provide a person to read the exam paper to the student or help the student to read it themselves. The student may be allowed to use assistive technology, that they usually use, to access printed words.
The accommodated student will still be expected to show 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. 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 exams. 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 the focus is 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 affect the student’s ability to communicate with the examiner.
When making reasonable accommodations for exams, 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 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 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 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. A disability might prevent a student from developing or demonstrating one or two of these skills. 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 lose 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 exactly the same meaning as the grades of other students. This is 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 name 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 given where the elements involved are not core parts of the course. This has two aspects:
A disability or condition might stop a student from developing or demonstrating some important skills 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 Reasonable Accommodations at the Certificate Examinations (RACE scheme) is December 9th, 2016
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