Results from a study, led by Dr. Kate James from Éirim: The National Assessment Agency (James & Hannah, 2017), suggest that students that receive a spelling and grammar waiver (SGW) in their Leaving Certificate exams receive an unfair advantage over other students, thus casting doubt on the validity of the accommodation.
What is a Spelling and Grammar Waiver (SGW)?
The SGW was introduced in 2001 for students with dyslexia and spelling difficulties sitting their Junior and Leaving Cert. exams. It is one of a few examination accommodations offered by the State Examinations Commission (SEC) in Ireland there to ensure that students with ‘disabilities’ are not disadvantaged in their exams and can show their true ability. Essentially, any student with a SGW receives an exemption from the spelling and grammar part of their exam paper. For example in the English Language paper of the Leaving Certificate, if a student has a SGW they are assessed on all aspects of the paper except their spelling and punctuation, which accounts for 10% of the overall mark. Of course, they do not lose this 10%, instead their marks are pro-rated which means that they do receive a percentage of the 10% available but the amount they get depends on how they did on the rest of the paper.
The SGW is the most popular examination accommodation offered with 9% of all students sitting their Leaving Cert. using it and this number is rising year on year. Until now, there has been no research conducted on the validity or fairness of the SGW.
Results of the study:
During their study, James & Hannah (2017) took a sample of student mock Leaving Certificate papers. Half of the students had been granted a SGW (i.e. indicating they had dyslexia) and half had not been granted a waiver. Each of the papers were marked by experienced examiners, once with a SWG and 2 months later without the waiver. The examiners were not told that they were marking the same papers the second time around.
Ideally, if an exam accommodation is valid or fair we would expect that results of ‘disabled’ students using the accommodation would increase more than non-disabled students also using the accommodation (i.e. the accommodation is of little or no benefit/advantage to a non-disabled student). For example, enlarging the text on an exam paper for a visually impaired student will increase the marks for that student but shouldn’t make too much of a difference for a student with normal vision. Similarly, reading an exam paper to a student with reading difficulties will increase the marks they receive compared to if they were left to read it alone, but it shouldn’t make too much of a difference for a student with normal reading skills. If a similar logic is applied to the SGW we would expect the results of the dyslexic/weak spelling student to increase with the accommodation much more than the results of a non-dyslexic student with the same accommodation.
The results from James and Hannah’s study demonstrated that on average all papers marked with a SGW, including those written by students that were dyslexic and those that were not, received considerably higher marks than when those same papers were marked without a SGW. These results, therefore, indicate that the SGW gives an unfair advantage to students that receive it (even those that don’t need the accommodation). If this is the case, then the spelling and grammar could be seen as a prized or privileged possession, providing a boost or advantage to all those that get it.
According to James and Hannah (2017) this research, of course, has “implications for the State Examinations Commission in how they grant SGW’s to students. Given the high stakes nature of the Leaving Certificate, it is imperative that everyone can have confidence in the interpretation of students’ results.’ We need to ensure that the marks a student receives are a true reflection of the students’ performance and not an inflated view. You can read the full research article here
While the general trend of results was towards higher marks for both dyslexic and non-dyslexic students when using a SGW, the results at an individual level were also very interesting. James and Hannah found that while 61% of dyslexic students received higher grades with the SGW, 29% received a lower grade! So while the general belief may be that having a SGW gives a boost in marks, actually for some students it will decrease their marks.