Dyslexics denied exam aid

Pupils with 'invisible disabilities' go it alone

SAM BOYER
Last updated 05:00 21/09/2012
Cole Sundheim, 15, has dyslexia and ADHD
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HARD WORKER: Cole Sundheim, 15, has dyslexia and ADHD. His mum, Sue, says it’s difficult for students with learning disabilities to get government support.

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Pupils with learning disabilities have been told by the Government that they will have to go it alone come exam time in November.

Pupils with "invisible disabilities" such as dyslexia, ADHD, autism and apraxia - who need reading and writing support to cope with NCEA assessments - are being denied exam assistance by NZQA.

Many parents spend as much as $1500 on clinical assessments to prove their children need exam help, but NZQA has been turning down requests in growing numbers.

Educational psychologist and New Zealand Association of Gifted Children president Rose Black said the Government was "setting these kids up to fail".

"I've got students who have contacted me throughout the country who have met the criteria in the past, but this year they've been knocked back. It's obviously causing a lot of stress to a lot of families."

She said many students with learning difficulties who were denied help would find exam situations "overwhelming".

"It will have quite significant future negative impacts on these children. You are talking about people's careers here. If these particular students cannot continue with their studies, I think this will have a huge impact on our economy. Without support, they will be lining up for the dole."

NZQA deputy chief executive Richard Thornton said there had been an increase this year in applications for exam assistance.

Although final figures had not yet been calculated, he said the overall number of declined applications was lower than in previous years, although the number of amendments was higher.

Amendments can involve one or more parts of a pupil's request being declined, while others may be approved.

"One of the main reasons for the increase in SAC [special assessment conditions] applications is the recognition of dyslexia as a criterion," Mr Thornton said.

"A school or candidate is able to appeal this decision and raise any concerns they have through the appeals process."

But psychologist Lynn Beresford said she had seen a big blowout in the number of children being denied learning "accommodations" by NZQA.

"I have been doing this for a long time, probably as long as anyone in New Zealand . . . [and] I have been in overload for almost two months because of the declines in accommodations.

"I have only had about three or four [pupils denied exam assistance] in 15 years. And this year [there have been] over 50 - and I've not done anything differently.

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"It's totally unfair, and for the students the level of anxiety has been enormous."

Adele Campbell, teacher of dyslexic students at Paraparaumu College, said the process was tough for schools as well. A "huge amount" of work went into each pupil's application, only for some to be knocked back by NZQA.

LEARNING DISABILITY STUDENTS 'PENALISED'

Cole Sundheim has dyslexia and ADHD, meaning he needs to work extra hard to achieve his good grades.

Cole is a year 11 pupil at Western Heights High School in Rotorua, and mum Sue says he is "working much harder than any of his non-disability companions have to".

He spends four to five hours a day studying in his holidays and weekends to make sure he's ready for his NCEA level 1 exams.

But because it takes the 15-year-old longer to sort problems out in his head, he needs more time to complete exams.

"He's such a slow writer and a slow processor, and he needs a quiet environment because he's so distractible. If you didn't have these accommodations, he wouldn't have the time to complete the test and show what he knows," she said.

When he applied to NZQA for extra time dispensation, he was declined. His mother had to source additional evidence and reapply.

The second application was accepted, but Mrs Sundheim, a psychiatrist, said many families might struggle with the rigmarole - and many students would be penalised.

EXAM TIME

Students with learning disabilities can apply for Special Assessment Conditions:

Reader assistance

Writer assistance

A signer (sign language)

Quieter/smaller room

Computer use

Extra time

Enlarged A3 papers

Rest breaks

Braille papers

Home supervision

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