Natalie Solent

Politics, news, libertarianism, Science Fiction, religion, sewing. You got a problem, bud? I like sewing.

E-mail: nataliesolent-at-aol-dot-com (I assume it's OK to quote senders by name.)

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I also sometimes write for Samizdata and Biased BBC.)

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Wednesday, June 06, 2007
A diagnosis of dyslexia is no more than a painkiller for middle class parents whose children read badly, argues Professor Julian Elliot, quoted in this Times article.

I do not agree. You can see the difference in the writing. Plain old bad readers are plain old bad writers but dyslexics are skewed writers. You know it when you see it.

But Professor Edwards has a helluva point when he says, "The disability lobby is so strong and the advantages, financial and otherwise, so great that they are diagnosing dyslexics all over the place," ... "At universities students can get laptops, extra books and other equipment, sometimes to the value of almost £10,000 each. It’s a very problematic area."

More problematic still, to me, is the fact that dyslexic students can get their degree under less stringent conditions than non-dyslexic candidates, and, crucially, the fact that they had the extra leeway does not appear on the certificate.

This has nothing to do with the issues of whether dyslexia is a real condition (I think it is) or what proportion of those claiming it really have it (I have no sure knowledge, though in considering any question to do with the integrity of the modern British examination I am a pessimist.) It also has nothing to do with lack of sympathy for those who honestly struggle with spelling, for any reason. I sympathise greatly with those who are not cheating and not at all with those who are. The prime victims of the false dyslexics, naturally, are the genuine dyslexics.

But even assuming that the diagnosis of dyslexia was utterly certain and utterly unfakeable, an exam is meant to measure how well the candidates do certain set tasks under certain set constraints. It should not measure how well they would have done them if the world had been different.

Why should dyslexia get you extra time when poor reading for other reasons does not? Why should poor reading get you extra time when poor mathematics does not? (Note to self: don't give 'em ideas.) Indeed, why should poor reading get you extra time in a physics exam when poor physics does not, or in a French exam when poor French does not?

It's as if, in the hundred metre sprint at the Olympics, after eliminating in the heats hundreds of competitors who, though healthy, simply did not have the genes and/or the training to make the final, the Olympic authorities added two extra slots on the lineup, set twenty metres forward, for people suffering from some particular wasting disease of the legs.

In his letter to the editor of the Times, John Gillespie writes:

If an employer required French knowledge from a prospective employee, he would have no idea that his prospective employee might require 25 per cent more time to complete a task in this specialist area. If an accountant is employed, does his employer want to discover that his employee needs 25 per cent more time to do his calculations than other colleagues?

Some of the replies just didn't get it.

My son needed extra time in exams not because he couldn’t read but because he can’t spell. I don’t mean the odd problem with “i” before “e”, or how many m’s in accommodation; I mean every word. Visually, he can remember only the first three letters of a word. After that, every word he writes, his name included, has to be spelt out phonetically. Imagine how much time this takes. Would you really begrudge him that extra 25 per cent?

John Gillespie, in his letter of June 1, argues that we should avoid areas where we have difficulties. How many jobs does he think there are where you can avoid reading and writing?

This is not an argument that it is in the son's interest to make. It is people hiring for those many jobs where you cannot avoid reading and writing who don't want to find out when it's too late that they have picked someone who - through no fault of his or her own - can't do the job. I don't so much begrudge this young man his extra twenty five per cent of time in itself, but I certainly begrudge him being given it secretly when others are not. A better argument for the writer to make might have been that there are too few jobs when you can avoid reading and writing. Too much of the modern world is obsessed with dragging reading and writing - bleeding forms and bleeding reports and bleeding policies and bleeding stupid effing mission statements - into fields (including advanced and prestigious fields) where it is not really necessary to read or write that well. I blame goverment regulation.

On the other hand, this is a good point from the same letter:

There are a number of signs which make it possible to spot children who are likely to be dyslexic even before they start to learn reading and writing. Why isn’t every primary teacher taught to recognise these indicators? Not only could appropriate help then be given promptly, but the problem would be diagnosed before the child knew how to cheat.

And a Dr John Macdonald wrote that in many subjects there is no good reason for having such tight time limits.
There is a real need to look carefully at all examinations to see for which ones the ability to complete a task against the clock is an important skill that must form part of the assessment. I teach a course in problem solving to final-year physics undergraduates, and I would value far more a student who took a little longer to produce a better thought-out solution than one who showed the ability to produce an approximate solution in a short time.
I have no difficulty envisaging a dyslexic physics genius.

I suspect that the real reason for a lot of strict time limits is that the logistics of arranging a longer exam are troublesome. The examination centre must cater for more candidates needing the toilet or water or whatever without giving them chances to cheat. These difficulties would cost money to solve - but "free" laptops also cost money. Ultimately, discredited qualifications also cost money. Do not suggest to me that continuous assessment might be the way forward unless you want a poke in the eye; we are only just struggling out of the mire of dishonesty that fad caused, and besides the mummies and daddies want a break from doing all these projects.