#literacy ADHD Assistive Technology Dyslexia Examination Access Arrangements

It’s not fair! How the exam system sets up neurodiverse students to fail.

I had the pleasure of talking at Haberdashers Girl’ school Teaching and Learning conference recently about how the exam system has become increasingly unfair for children with #dyslexia #ADHD #dyspraxia #SLCN #ASD –  students with specific learning difficulties whom many now call neurodiverse. 

A few of the shared traits for such students are speed of processing and working memory difficulties. It stands to reason that exams which require students to memorise lots of information, retrieve it and hold it in their short term memory to manipulate are harder if memory is impaired. Furthermore, exams are timed which of course affects those who take longer to read and think things through. Another element which affects many students is anxiety,  this can have a dramatic impact on a students’ ability to succeed when the brain shifts into flight or fight and can only function in a procedural rather than declarative way. 

It’s not fair is it? Why have we gone backwards with exams and removed any help such as visual prompts, open book, formulas and coursework? Through no fault of their own, students who were born with a developmental difficulty have the odds stacked against them during their school years. Not because they don’t know stuff but because the measure of what they know depends on strategies which they struggle with. The people who have designed these exams are likely to be good at memorising, retrieval and thinking at speed.  It does not however mean their knowledge is deeper.

An example I gave in my talk (and I do this quite regularly) is stand in front of Shakespeare’s sonnet 18. I have tried to memorise this for over a year and in front of an audience, under pressure I cannot recite the whole sonnet. I can do the first stanza and the final rhyming couplet but no more with automaticity. I can however do it if I spend a long time writing it out, using the rhyme scheme to trigger my memory; I can also do it if the audience help me like the prompt in stage plays. So I stand there and recite the sonnet I have tried so hard to memorise, my heart begins to race and I feel under pressure. With the help of my audience I get through with about three reminders I think. When people tell me I just need to try harder, spend longer and then I will know it, I find this frustrating. Like remembering the alphabet and my times tables and the fourteen other poems I need for GCSE English Literature, and the periodic table for Science and the formulas for maths ….I would spend all day, every day memorising these and they wouldn’t stay – like the sonnet, my memory fades quickly, retrieval needs prompting and while I’m trying to do all this, I’m not learning, I’m not thinking, I’m just trying to do something I can’t  do rather than concentrating on what I’m really good at which is analysing poetry, talking about subjects, being curious  and thinking. 

I know that sonnet well, I know every word, I love the rhyming couplet which is so powerful. I understand the rhyme scheme, the structure of this type of sonnet and the iambic pentameter. I just. Can’t. Recite. It. Without prompts. And this is why open book and other prompts which help memory are so important for students like me.  It does not affect knowledge. The picture below shows a visual prompt my partner keeps with him as a paddlesports coach, he is an extremely experienced and accomplished teacher but this just helps him remember the activities he might need. It’s useless to me as I have no knowledge of what’s on the sheet. It’s not cheating – if a student doesn’t know the poems or how to use a periodic table, the prompts mean nothing. 

What are we testing in our students? Memory or application of knowledge?  It’s just not fair. 

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