Professor Amanda Kirby, CEO of Do-IT Solutions., Campaigner for Neurodiversity, Medic, Knowledge Translator, researcher

Originally published as part of The Neurodiversity 101 LinkedIn Newsletter.

All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others…. No equity in assessments

This is a long insight. I apologise but it became important to give you enough narrative to understand what I am talking about.

We have exams in school, in colleges, in apprenticeships, in universities, and in many professional parts of our lives. Formal, timed, written, closed book examinations remain the commonest method of educational assessment that many educational settings employ to gauge a student’s level of subject based knowledge, ability and skills following a course of study.

This assumes that a student’s performance in an exam acts as an objective and reliable measure of that student’s learning and proficiency in a given subject area, they have studied. This assumption needs to be challenged,

Since the Disability Act 2001 (SENDA) placed an anticipatory duty on public bodies to proactively remove barriers to participation faced by disabled people, reasonable adjustments to learning, teaching and assessment are part and parcel of further and higher education assessment.

In the past twenty years, the number of ‘disabled students’ entering higher education has risen, particularly those identifying as having a specific learning difficulty (SpLD) and in particular the focus till relatively recently has predominantly been on Dyslexia (Hubble & Bolton, 2021; Ryder & Norwich, 2019).

Access arrangements

Access arrangements, such as additional time and the use of a word processor, have remained the most frequent adjustments or accommodations that students with SpLDs/neurodivergent traits/conditions receive in a time constrained exam situation (Lovett, 2010; Jones, 2014).  Data from Ofqual has revealed an 8.7% increase in approved access arrangements in 2022–2023 compared with the previous academic year.

25% extra time – where did this come from?

While there are a range of potential adjustments including having a scribe that can be applied but by far the commonest specific adjustment or accommodation is obtaining extra time in an examination. Most of the time given is 25% extra.

The number of approved 25% extra time access arrangements valid for use during the 2022 to 2023 academic year was equivalent to 27.7% of all candidates taking exams in the 2022 to 2023 academic year (compared with 26.0% in the 2021 to 2022 academic year.)

25% extra time access arrangements made up 65.8% of all approved access arrangements in the 2022 to 2023 academic year, compared with 65.3% in the 2021 to 2022 academic year

The number of approved computer reader or reader access arrangements valid for use during the 2022 to 2023 academic year was equivalent to 9.2% of all candidates taking exams in the 2022 to 2023 academic year(compared with 8.9% in the 2021 to 2022 academic year.)

The number of approved scribe or speech recognition access arrangements valid for use during the 2022 to 2023 academic year was equivalent to 3.5% of all candidates taking exams in the 2022 to 2023 academic year(compared with 3.6% in the 2021 to 2022 academic year.)

Why give extra time? Does it level the playing field in reality?

Extra time given for an exam assumes that a student’s performance in an exam acts as an objective and reliable measure of that student’s learning and proficiency in the subject area studied (Morrison, et al. 2004).

Access arrangements are principally supposed to be a way of granting additional time to level the playing field. However, as we usually apply a standard amount of extra time, rather than determining a ‘tailor made’ time extension calculated in an individualised manner (based on the needs of the individual and the demands of the assessment), it wrongly presupposes a degree of homogeneity across all neurodivergent students which is wildly wrong!

Why 25%?

Variations between students which may warrant differing amounts of additional time in exams and other adjustments are not reflected in the amount of extra time granted to each individual student as 25% remains the norm given.

The focus on extra time given has also been generally based on a concept that some examinees process certain kinds of information slowly and are therefore impeded in performance (Lyon, Shaywitz, & Shaywitz, 2003), and their scores are negatively biased by a time limitation (Savage, 2004). That is, they get lower scores than the corresponding hypothetical scores that would have been obtained under untimed conditions.  This also assumes that those who are not neurodivergent are able to work equally effectively in a timed situation.

Where access arrangements are organised varies from place to place.

What are some potential other challenges?

  • Handwriting speed
  • Handwriting legibility
  • Reading at speed
  • Visual impairment
  • Understanding what is meant by the phrasing of the questions.
  • Organising thoughts and ideas
  • Sensory setting e.g. Sounds; Smells in the room (e.g. flowers); lighting
  • Maintaining focus: Not being allowed to stand, fidget, move around.
  • Allocating time to the exam such as dividing up questions
  • Anxiety
  • Sleep deprived.
  • Hunger

Where is the evidence?

This is an interesting question. Despite hunting for it far and wide there is a lack of empirical evidence exists that justifies the calculation of 25% extra time specifically (as opposed to an alternative percentage of extra time). I really think it has become a formula that is easy to administer rather an any evidence-based calculation (Singleton, 1999).

Dyslexia biases

Extra time is given if your student has a specific cognitive profile that includes poor speed of information processing and deficits in working memory (Wechsler, 2008; Grant, 2009). More extra time is given for students with Dyslexia and less percentage wise for DCD/DLD/ADHD (Druckman et al, 2021).

Dyslexia doesn’t come alone, and Dyslexia doesn’t always come with other neurodivergent traits. Some students are slower in articulating their subject knowledge (McKimm, 2012; Licari et al, 2015); some have slower handwriting speed and lack legibility, and others lose focus in long examinations. In the latter case, the provision of extra time may make the situation even worse as some students go from one long exam to another long one! Writing performance of the students with dyslexia with age-matched participants without dyslexia and found statistical differences with the students with dyslexia writing more slowly than their age matched counterparts (Barnett et al, 2010). This does not consider how many of those with a diagnosis of Dyslexia also may have had Developmental Coordination Disorder as well!

We have little research considering types of neurodivergent traits and percentage applying for extra time and how this relates to actual prevalence rates but anecdotally it is ‘easier’ to gain a diagnosis of Dyslexia than Developmental Coordination Disorder (Dyspraxia), DLD or ADHD for example.

NOTE: See paper on co-occurrence across common neurodivergent traits (https://childhood-developmental-disorders.imedpub.com/why-do-we-find-it-so-hard-to-calculate-the-burden-of-neurodevelopmental-disorders.php?aid=23252)

Social biases

Who gets adjustments? They are the students who know how to apply for them (or their parents/school) and have the evidence to show they need it. Is this equitable- of course not!

Extra time or other adjustments requires documentation to be given usually based on evidence of a diagnosis of a specific condition(s). The evidence required for this varies from exam board to exam board.

**The starting point for problems!

For some students the process of gaining documented evidence including a diagnosis is often considered onerous. There is a need to provide documentary evidence of a ‘diagnosis’ leads some students to avoid registering with disability services all together for fear of stigma (Couzens et al., 2015; Jacobs et al., 2022; Kendall, 2016).

Long waits for a diagnosis: Diagnosis may not be possible as there are long waiting lists especially for some conditions more than others e.g. ADHD and Autism Spectrum Conditions. (Nuffield Trust; Morris,2024). With increasing waiting lists this often means those who can access documentation have parents who pay for a diagnosis.

Pupils where school’ teachers apply more for it (nearly 20% of all pupils in the independent sector. In contrast, in the state sector, less than 12% of students (200,000) received extra time; Guardian 2017).

Cultural differences– some students may have parents who don’t want to ask for assistance or not know how to access this or that it even exists.

I wonder how many students in alternative provision or who are care experienced get extra time in exams despite having higher rates of neurodivergent traits than the general population?( https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2666353823000097)

Does extra time level the playing field?

Short answer… no!

This assumes that all students achieve better grades if they are permitted additional time in exams. In addition to this is an assumption that students who can word process faster than normal handwriting speed), if they are given permission to use a word processor as well as having additional time in exams confers this could give even more of a ‘gain’ (Mogey et al, 2007). Wadley & Liljequist (2013),found that students with SpLD ‘took more time to complete the test’ (p.266) than their neurotypical peers, and that the granting of additional time had the effect of reducing the gap between the output of SpLD and TD candidates.

SpLD candidates (with and without a word processor) have been shown to significantly record fewer words per minute than TD candidates taking the same exam under standard conditions. This outcome supports the findings of the research of Reid (2009), McKimm (2012), Kibby et al (2008) and Finn et al (2014), which suggests that individuals with SpLD process information more slowly than their TD counterparts.

So… what’s the answer?

When colleagues and friends Helen Duncan and Catherine Purcell did a review of the literature in 2019, they found that there was no consensus over the gains or losses of extra time. Helen Duncan went onto show as part of a great PhD that ironically even when extra time is given the SpLD sample group in. her study achieved statistically significantly lower marks, lower classifications and, in the case of those who hand wrote their scripts, lower overall word counts on their exam scripts!

Sheffield Hallam may be has one approach we could consider.They give extra time for all exams regardless of whether someone has a report or not, a diagnosis or not! This at least seems more equitable.

“The extra pressure and anxiety of time constraints can disadvantage both disabled students and non-disabled students. Studies show that for disabled students, extra time in exams can make a significant difference to achieving a better mark (Runyan, 1991, Zuriff, 2000) whereas for non-disabled students, extra time makes little difference (Duncan & Purcell, 2019). To support as many students as possible to complete exams, all exams at SHU have 25% extra time-built in.”

https://crmportal.shu.ac.uk/knowledgebase/article/KA-01819/en-us

Who does summative assessment favour?

While we continue to have summative assessment in written formats seen as the end point for passing many qualifications it is imperative that these exams offer a fair evaluation of each candidate’s exam performance in a way that is equitable to all candidates. Who performs badly in this format.

I know during school I was always much much better in the classroom or doing a project than I was ever in a timed test. It was always disappointing for me, my teachers and my parents….getting my results. It did not represent my knowledge just my inability to fit a system that didn’t fit my why of showing my knowledge!

I ended up many years later getting a distinction in my MRCGP exams undertaken in a different format and with a viva too!

The bigger question we need to ask is what are we testing for?

Are you testing something that needs rapid recall as a safety reason e.g. in a health setting knowing what to do rapidly making a tangible difference to someone’s life?

What would happen for all if you removed the time restrictions and had an open-book exam? How much does the assessment align to the skill you want to see someone has learned?

Saving billions £££££

If widening access is a real want in terms of education, apprenticeships and workplaces and we also recognise there is always a shortage of money… then it seems if we can generate cash for training teachers and parents to support neurodivergent learners to optimise and showcase their talents and skills it would be good for all.

Maybe if we provided extra time for all and the ability to choose whether you record responses on a computer or by hand as standard choices for all this may be a move in the right direction. It would also generate a lot of funds for staff and parent training and support…!

Reference:

https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/access-arrangements-for-gcse-as-and-a-level-2022-to-2023-academic-year/access-arrangements-for-gcse-as-and-a-level-2022-to-2023-academic-year#most-common-types-of-access-arrangements

Blog Author

I am Amanda Kirby, CEO of Do-IT Solutions a tech-for-good company that delivers thought provoking consultancy and neuroinclusive guidance and training. We have developed cutting edge web-based screening tools that have helped 10s of 1000s of people. We strive to deliver person-centered solutions relating to neurodiversity and wellbeing.

I am a mixed bag of experiences and skills, an odd ball… and have 25+ years of working in the field of neurodiversity.

I am a medical doctor, Professor, and have a Ph.D. in the field of neurodiversity; parent and grandparent to neurodivergent wonderful kids and am neurodivergent myself.

Theo Smith and I wrote the UK award-winning book Neurodiversity at Work Drive Innovation, Performance, and Productivity with a Neurodiverse Workforce. My 10th book came out called Neurodiversity and Education in March this year. Excitingly, Theo and I have another book coming out next year!

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