When certificates fail to pass the test

12th November 2004 at 00:00
The SQA will lose credibility if it does not record what help candidates receive, says Judith Moore

What does the SQA stand for? The Scottish Qualifications Authority ? Seriously Queer Assessments? Significantly Qualified Attainment? Recent changes to the regulations governing the administration of special examination arrangements for pupils with additional support needs represent political correctness gone mad. I contend that, if these changes remain in place, Scottish examination results will lose all credibility.

I am not talking about dropping Highers such as hair and beauty or any other of the more esoteric recent additions: I am talking about changes which challenge the validity of the awards and threaten injustice to both employers and candidates.

For many years, pupils who have a significant difficulty of a dyslexic nature affecting their ability to read and spell have been allowed the services of a reader and scribe for their examinations. This has allowed these pupils to demonstrate their understanding, their creative or problem-solving ability and their critical judgment without being handicapped by being unable to read the question paper or to write their answers.

If the examination were one assessing an ability to communicate in writing and to understand communications in writing, such as English or French, then the candidate's award certificate was endorsed with a small star which indicated that the examination had been taken under special conditions.

This alerted any prospective employer to the fact that a reader and scribe might have been used.

In a significant injustice to employers, there is no longer any endorsement on the certificate of a pupil who has had special arrangements, of whatever nature.

This means that an employer has no way of knowing, or reason to suspect, that the English Higher or Standard grade certificate offered as evidence of educational attainment and capacity may have been obtained through the services of a reader and scribe, and that the applicant, while intellectually able, may have a reading and spelling age of seven. Nor, indeed may the employer know that pupils with significant memory problems and difficulties with basic arithmetical processes may now sit the non-calculator maths papers using a calculator, without any indication of this being given on the certificate.

Let us now consider another aspect of the new arrangements. Previously a scribe writing or transcribing a paper for a candidate was required to sign the paper, saying that it had been scribed. This meant that the marker knew that the work had been dictated to, or rewritten by, the scribe and that the punctuation, paragraphing and spelling were the scribe's. These elements were not, then, taken into particular account in the marking, which, as far as possible, would be based on content. A reasonable level of linguistic competence was all that was required of the scribe.

Now, as part of the recent changes, the scribe is forbidden to put any indication whatsoever on the paper. This means that a pupil's linguistic competence is being judged on the linguistic competence of the scribe. This may well operate to the candidate's disadvantage, as at Advanced Higher level, for example, the demands of technical accuracy may well be extremely high, and most scribes will fall short of achieving them.

How do we come to be in such a muddle? Recent legislation covering disability discrimination and equality of access to the curriculum, all of it well meant and much of it long overdue, has prompted the SQA to offer as much assistance as it can to those suffering disabilities of any kind, while trying to maintain the validity of the examinations. Unfortunately, its legal advice is that it is discriminatory to have anything, either on the scripts or on the certificates of results, to indicate the different conditions under which the exam was taken. It has in effect been told that pupils and parents have the right to refuse to have this information included in any form and that the SQA would be breaking the law to do so.

I am a caring and committed teacher of pupils with additional support needs. I have 22 pupils in fourth and fifth year sitting external examinations this year under a variety of special arrangements - from reading, scribing and additional time to transcription with correction, prompting, the use of a keyboard, use of a calculator in non-calculator papers, enlarged papers and separate accommodation, yet none of these special arrangements will attract endorsement. This is happening throughout Scotland.

While I would fight for my pupils' right to equal opportunities, and for their right to sit their examinations in any way that lessens the difficulties which they face and struggle so admirably to overcome, I do not believe that anyone's cause is promoted through hiding the truth.

Judith Moore is principal teacher support for learning at Perth Grammar.

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