Special Exam Conditions for Students With Dyslexia

I recently read the story of a South Australian Year 12 student with dyslexia – a student who had his request for extra time in exams denied by the South Australian Certificate of Education review panel.

I was immediately struck by how common this story is and how easily the boy in this story could have been many of the students that I have come to know.

Despite the prevalence of dyslexia (recent figures estimate that one in twenty individuals are dyslexic), there are still a lot of misconceptions about this disorder and what individuals with dyslexia can and cannot do.

Many people believe that those with dyslexia are completely illiterate and there are even those (educators included) who don’t believe that dyslexia exists at all!

So, let’s clarify a few things….

  • Most people with dyslexia will learn to read and write to a reasonable level. They can complete high school, university and go on to almost any career that they could hope for. BUT, it will be difficult and will require more work to master these skills than that put in by your typical non-dyslexic person.
  • There is NO evidence-based “quick fix” for dyslexia but there are different ways of learning and approaching tasks that can help consolidate literacy skills and these strategies are often different from the standard way taught in the classroom.
  • A lot of kids reverse the way they read and write letters and numbers when they are first learning. Most of them grow out of it in time. If your child continues to reverse numbers and letters after the age of seven or eight, it may be worthwhile investigating things further.
  • People with dyslexia can be very good at covering up their difficulties. They can be prone to behavioural problems, avoidance strategies, anxiety, school refusal or acting as the “class clown”. Those with above average cognitive skills are particularly good at “flying under the radar” and using a variety of problem-solving skills to get around any deficits.

Want more information?

Below is a list of symptoms commonly seen in individuals with dyslexia (now known as a “Specific Learning Disorder in the domain of reading”), which is based on the newest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-V).

Symptoms of dyslexia:

  1. Inaccurate or slow and effortful word reading (e.g., reads single words aloud incorrectly or slowly and hesitantly, frequently guesses words, has difficulty sounding out words)
  2. Difficulty understanding the meaning of what is read (e.g., may read text accurately but does not understand the sequence, relationships, interferences, or deeper meanings of what is read).
  3. Difficulties with spelling (e.g., may omit or substitute vowels or consonants).
  4. Difficulties with written expression (e.g., making multiple grammatical or punctuation errors within sentences; employs poor paragraph organisation; written expression lacks ideas of clarity).
  5. Difficulties mastering number sense, number facts, or calculation (e.g., has poor understanding of numbers, their magnitude, and relationships; counts on fingers  to add single digits instead of recalling math facts as peers do; gets lost in the midst of arithmetic computation and may switch procedures).
  6. Difficulties with mathematical reasoning (e.g., has severe difficulty applying mathematical concepts, facts, or procedures to solve quantitative problems).

In addition to the above, it has to be shown that the individual has been exhibiting the symptoms for longer than six months and that interventions have been largely ineffective.

It should be ruled out that the problems are due to another issue, such as overall intellectual disability, behavioural problems, health difficulties, difficulties with vision or hearing, mental or neurological disorders, interruptions in the individual’s schooling, trauma or other discrete events.

Lastly, the affected academic skills must be substantially below those expected for the individual’s age and they must cause significant interference with academic or occupational performance or with activities of daily living.

What does this mean in an exam situation?

Okay, so a person with dyslexia has worked their backside off all the way through school and finds themselves in an exam situation. They are likely to have the following issues…

  • reading exam questions and written passages more slowly;
  • possibly needing to re-read questions and passages in order to check accuracy;
  • skipping or misreading questions;
  • difficulty with spelling when providing short- and long-answer written responses;
  • taking longer to proofread their own written work;
  • difficulties using procedures to solve maths equations; and,
  • problems with remembering maths facts automatically.

One more thing…

In addition to these difficulties, what is often not made clear is that many individuals with dyslexia also have a poor working memory. “Working” memory refers to being able to hold information in the short-term memory in order to complete a current goal – such as solving maths problems in our head or following instructions to carry out a task.

A poor working memory in a test situation can mean that the individual may need to:

  • frequently refer back to the question to ensure they are answering all aspects;
  • re-read over their own responses frequently because they may forget what their argument is or which part of the question they were attempting to answer; and,
  • re-check steps in solving maths problems because they may be unsure which part they need to solve next.

The current state of affairs

It seems like there is a pretty clear case for why students with dyslexia should be given special exam conditions for them to perform on a somewhat-close-to-even playing field as their peers. In many cases, they require not only extra time, but would also benefit from the use of handheld spelling machines, computers, a scribe or even being given exams in which they can be orally examined.

So, why are so many of these cases being rejected by the various state bodies? Why are so many of these students being disallowed the chance to adequately demonstrate the knowledge that they have?

Apart from being unfair, these rejections also contribute to a lot of stress and anxiety in these students which can further impede their ability to perform at their best.

From the cases I have personally come in contact with, there does seem to be a common thread that exists between students whose requests for special exam conditions are denied. Students who are quite bright appear to be more likely to have their applications rejected.

My explanation of this trend is that these adolescents may not be performing so very badly that they draw attention to themselves. Even though there will be a large difference between their actual cognitive ability (their IQ, if you like) and their reading performance, their reading performance is not actually that terrible in comparison with their peers.

These students have developed great skills over the years so that they are performing at an average level. However, it should be remembered that they may have had to work twice as hard as their peers to get to that level and their actual understanding of the subject means they could be performing well above average if given the opportunity to demonstrate these skills.

Unfortunately, many students with dyslexia – especially those that are hard working and reasonably bright – tend to slip “under the radar” and can sometimes make it to late primary school or even secondary school without having their learning difficulty diagnosed.

Not only does this limit the resources and support available to them but it is often the case that they don’t have a documented long-term learning impairment in order to receive special exam conditions during their Year 12 exams. The argument seems to be: If they’ve done without special assistance thus far, why should we start giving it to them now?

Some would also argue that those with dyslexia don’t get “special consideration” in real life so they shouldn’t be given it in exams. Well, I have a dream that, as people become better educated about this disorder, it is conceivable we might have workplaces where provisions are made to ensure they are supported.

For starters, how many workplaces are there these days that don’t use computers at least some of the time? Besides which, many people with dyslexia may choose professions that involve little reading and writing at all but, of course, they are still required to sit the Year 12 English exam to get them into the course that leads to that career!

Others might say that education departments can’t approve all applications or else we’d have every girl and her dog crying out for special allowances because she stubbed her big toe. Fair enough, but that is why applications for special consideration need to be backed up with reports from medical professionals.

I am sure that the departments of education in each state have some kind of clear and specific criteria for determining valid from invalid applications, but they might just need a little bit of revision when it comes to the understanding of this particular disorder (and possibly other disorders too).

Many people are very frustrated and angry about this trend but parents and students appear to have few options if their applications for special exam conditions are rejected. I, for one, am hopeful though.

An understanding of what dyslexia is does seem to be growing among educators and parents. Teachers appear to be getting better at recognising the early warning signs of dyslexia, despite not being taught about learning disorders in most teaching courses.

I strongly recommend that teachers go out of their way to access information from those with a background in special education and that schools provide training courses to enable teachers to better understand the range of learning disabilities out there.

Of course, parents and teachers can now access more and more information from the internet, often leading them to turn sneaking suspicions into a decision to have a child assessed.

Ensuring that there is clear documentation about the diagnosis and management of dyslexia can sometimes affect the likelihood that applications for special exam conditions are successful.

To parents, my advice is: Don’t be afraid to nag and harass whoever you need to if it means that your child might get the support that they need. Do your research when it comes to schools and programs outside of school that might be useful – some schools are much better at managing learning difficulties than others and can provide much more support when it comes to applications for extra assistance.

My hope is that all these slow changes we are starting to see will result in gradual improvements to how students with dyslexia are identified and supported across their school life and not just when it comes to their final exams.

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