Push for extra help in low-decile schools

A push to help pupils from 250 low-decile schools get special NCEA exam assistance is being treated with caution by the Dyslexia Foundation of New Zealand.

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The Ministry of Education hopes that with greater use of a process which does not require parents to pay $400 to $700 for expert assessments, and more involvement of Resource Teachers: Learning and Behaviour (RTLBs), hundreds more pupils will be able to receive help.

But the Dyslexia Foundation says low-decile schools may still find the process too difficult and time-consuming and it doubts there will be enough RTLBs able to provide the assistance needed.

Ministry Group Manager Special Education Brian Coffey, in an email response to questions, said the full benefit of changes proposed would not be realised this year.

The targeting of schools which have not applied for help follows the review of Special Assessment Conditions (Sac) carried out by the Ministry and the New Zealand Qualifications Authority last year following increasing concerns about the inequity of access to this assistance.

Pupils who are granted Sac may have the assistance of a reader/writer for assessments, extra time or be allowed to use computers.

The review confirmed what the Otago Daily Times highlighted in January last year, that under the existing system, high-decile, mostly private, schools are getting the most help while only a handful of pupils in low-decile schools receive Sac.

This trend has been evident since at least 2005.

The review said a pupil attending a decile 10 school was seven times more likely to have an application for Sac than one from a decile 1 school. About a third of all schools did not access Sac at all last year.

A graph in the review showed Canterbury had the highest proportion of pupils with Sac, followed by Tasman and then Otago.

The review found the $400-$700 cost of an independent expert assessment to support Sac applications was one of the major barriers for low-decile schools.

The ministry and NZQA are encouraging greater use of the alternative evidence application process which does not require such assessments.

Although this process could already be used by schools, last year's figures showed that most applications for this also came from high-decile schools.

Alternative evidence applications also had a lower approval rate than those applications supported by independent expert assessment.

While the information required for alternative evidence applications has remained unchanged, NZQA says it has streamlined the online application process to make it easier for schools to use.

There will also be greater involvement of RTLBs to ensure early identification and ongoing support of pupils who need extra support.

Dyslexia Foundation chairman of trustees Guy Pope-Mayell said the ''elephant in the room'' about the proposed changes was ''where the money is coming from''.

The RTLB network of ''just over 900'' teachers was already under-resourced and underfunded. Extra teachers and extra training would be needed.

Mr Coffey said additional funding would not be required to make better use of information already available about a pupil to make an application for Sac.

He also indicated there would not necessarily be a need for more RTLBs.

There is no information in the review report on the financial implications of any changes.

Estimates on the current cost of Sac in the report erroneously overstated last year's cost by about $300,000, stating it as $800,000, rather than $500,000 the Otago Daily Times found.

NZQA deputy chief executive Richard Thornton said this had not affected the conclusions or recommendations from the review.

Conflicting figures were given in the report for numbers of pupils receiving Sac last year.

Questions revealed the latest figure is 4615, higher than earlier estimates.

The reason for the increase was because some pupils were accepted quite late in the process and tallies were changing late in the academic year, the Ministry said.

There was no explanation given for the 2012 number of Sac pupils, now given as 4331, being about 900 higher than a figure released in November last year.

The review said the cost of funding independent assessments, at a rate of $500 each, for all schools, based on all schools accessing Sac at 4% of the pupil population (the rate for 8-10 decile schools now) would be about $3.37 million.

Doing this in decile 1-3 schools alone would cost $552,000.

It did not recommend either option, favouring instead the increased use of alternative evidence.

The report did not draw a conclusion on what proportion of pupils could reasonably expect to receive Sac, although it said the existing percentage was about 3%.

Mr Pope-Mayell suggests if all schools were proactive about accessing Sac, the percentage receiving it would be conservatively 8-10%, about 12,500 pupils.

The review did not discuss the concern of some in education circles, previously expressed to the ODT, that there could be over-identification of Sac pupils in some high-decile schools.

Several schools told the review of concerns about the quality of independent assessment reports.

Some assessors told the review they were concerned the system required their reports to go to the schools for interpretation, preferring them to go directly to NZQA.

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