Professor Julian Elliott of Durham University has written about Special exam arrangements for dyslexia veering out of control . He makes some good points, some of which we agree with. However there are several points, which we think need clarifying, and this blog will explain why.
Let us be clear …
Elliott does not deny the existence of real, sometimes complex, problems that lead to individuals having difficulty with learning literacy skills. He acknowledges this is due to differences in their biological and genetic makeup. We would argue this is dyslexia and isn’t a million miles away from the working definition used in the Rose Review (2009) and largely agreed upon by experts in the field. Elliott would like to see this defined as Reading Disability, but as we have argued previously, in our blog, why the label ‘dyslexia’ matters, we disagree.
Elliot focuses on reading difficulties as the sole problem that dyslexics encounter noting that the evolution of ‘dyslexia’ as a term that once related to rare cases of people who could not make ‘sense of the written word’, to:
‘Individuals exhibiting one or more of a wide range of cognitive difficulties involving areas such as memory, speed of processing, attention, concentration, analysis and synthesis, organisation and self-regulation – controlling oneself and one’s actions’
Elliott’s work is at odds with other research and thinking. For example, the aforementioned Rose Review examined dyslexia in great detail and concluded that many of these characteristics are related to dyslexia although notes that they may not necessarily be caused by it.
Elliott seems to imply that one can simply say one is dyslexic, “I’m a bit disorganized and find it hard to concentrate” and you will be give access arrangements automatically. This is not the case because exam access arrangements for all public examinations (e.g. GCSEs and A levels) are not given on the basis of a diagnosis of dyslexia. Rather the student must be assessed using standardized tests which need to show that a pupil scores up to a particular threshold, typically 84 or below in reading accuracy, speed or comprehension for a reader. A diagnosis in itself does not qualify any candidate for access arrangement. Furthermore, in addition to these scores, there must also be school/college-based evidence of need for the access arrangement and evidence that is the candidate’s normal way of working.
He also states that assessment is out of “control” and “Universities, for example, are provided with assessments and recommendations from privately funded educational psychologists that are often difficult to challenge.” Again there is a grain of truth in this argument because the regulation of diagnostic assessments undertaken by some psychologists is weak and there is little training provided by professional associations, such as the British Psychological Society. However psychologists are governed by a code of ethics and regulated by the Health and Care Professionals Council (HCPC) so there are routes to complain. This is not the case for those registered with an organisation like SASC, which includes many specialist teachers who are not regulated by HCPC or similar but do have their own guidance on test administration and reporting.
Elliott also differentiates between those with physical and cognitive impairments. He argues that a student with a visual impairment should be provided with appropriate means to complete an exam, such as a reader or scribe. He goes on to note:
However, where the person’s difficulty involves the same processes as those being used to differentiate between candidates’ academic performance, for example, remembering detail, or being able to marshal and express a complex argument in a time-constrained period, we run the risk of helping some while disadvantaging others.
We disagree because Elliott is suggesting a cognitive impairment warrants less adjustments than one that is more apparent and easily identify, e.g. visual impairment. Our point is that yes, dyslexics are capable of remembering or expressing a complex argument – but that they need to have certain adjustments (for example extra time, a reader and scribe) in order to do so, in addition to the right strategies, good revision techniques, and supportive teachers.
As regards the issue in question, the need to commit 15 poems, fully or in part, to memory, is not against the Equality Act because procedurally it has been appropriately assessed within the legal framework. Further but this relates to LTM, which is no more a problem for dyslexics than others in the population.
To understand more about Elliott’s points on memory here is a very brief summary of what we mean by different types of memory and why they’re important.
It is generally agreed that we have two types of memory store, short term or working memory (WM) and long term memory (LTM). There is no suggestion that the latter is impaired in dyslexics, on the contrary anecdotally we often see dyslexics as having very good LTM, which has two additional stores;
Working memory is quite different and is generally associated with difficulties faced by pupils with dyslexia. WM is our ability to retain small chunks of information for example reciting a phone number, and manipulating this for a specific purpose, as with mental arithmetic. Working memory, accordingly to Baddeley’s model (1986), has three subs that enable us to gather information and work out what to do with it:
More recently Baddeley developed his model further and added in the episodic buffer. This system integrates information in a way that allows memories to be accessed in a sequence so for example when following a story we can keep track of plots lines.
Working memory is very important to learning. In fact research from Packiam Alloy (2009) argues that working memory is a better predictor of learning abilities in children with Specific Learning Difficulties, than IQ. However Elliott rightly notes that the working memory of pupils with dyslexia varies enormously and simply having a poor working memory neither qualifies one as dyslexic or for reasonable adjustments in examinations. If the argument is that the method and content of examinations is wrong then that should be addressed. However if individualised resourcing and exam accommodations are to be provided for particular cognitive difficulties, we need a more sophisticated understanding of exactly which difficulties, at what level of severity, are appropriate for access arrangements.
Where the underlying problems concern cognitive processes such as memory, processing speed or attention, the preferred strategy should not be to modify examination conditions. Instead, it should be to assist students to develop strategies that can assist them to perform as well as possible, targeting additional resources towards the provision of workshops to improve relevant study skills.
Once again Elliott is missing the point here because those identified with literacy issues will be need more time to read the questions, formulate the answers and get it down on paper. It is up the teacher to identify those with short term memory issues and develop the strategies necessary to help them answer the questions. This is not an issue of dyslexia but an issue of exam technique and teaching.
That is why at DYT through the Drive for Literacy program we screen all children in a school at year 1 and then again in year 3. In that way you pick up and put in the correct measures to hopefully deal with the literacy issues, be they speech and language, or general literacy learning issues, as well as dyslexia. We train the whole school to be able to identify dyslexia and give teachers some simple but essential tools to deal with children who might learn in a different way. We believe that all schools should seek to identify children with learning issues early on, the children should be monitored and the correct measures put in place. Not all of these children will be dyslexic, but as it is widely accepted that dyslexia is on a spectrum, and early identification will enable those children to build the skills necessary to deal with the learning environment.
Ultimately there’s the question about the validity of this way of testing – which probably accounts for why so many ‘unsuccessful’ students at school go on to be very successful in later life.