Prioritise exam reform for children with disabilities

Children with disabilities exchanging greetings at a programme in Bengaluru (Photo/ KRISHNAKUMAR P S)

A fourth of India’s school-going age children with disabilities (CWDs) are not in school. This makes CWDs the largest group among the country’s out of school children, at a time when primary school enrollment is almost universal.

Among CWDs who do make it to school, enrollment levels fall after each successive year of schooling. Drop out is particularly high in Class IX (about 48 per cent) and Class X (about 21 per cent), and only two per cent reach higher secondary levels (Class XI and Class XII). The drop out numbers are particularly concerning for CWDs with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), intellectual disabilities (dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, dysprasia, and developmental aphasia), speech and language disabilities, and multiple disabilities.

Given the pattern in CWD drop-out, it is clear that the prospect of an unfriendly board examination system marked by insufficient accommodations daunts even those who have braved infrastructure-deficient and often insensitive school and classroom environments for years.

For CWDs, the drop out, besides its obvious implications for completing schooling, implies serious disruption (an end to the school-going routine, and the abandonment of a space and social network adjusted to with great effort at an age when social, especially peer, interaction however constrained is much valued) and is hurtful for self-esteem. 

The switch over to the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) curriculum and exam, the only realistic option once the mainstream schooling system has abdicated, offers a path to school completion but at the cost of social alienation.

This is not an issue that is entirely unrecognised by policy makers. The Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPWD) Act 2016 calls upon governments and local authorities “to make suitable modifications in the curriculum and examination system to meet the needs of students with disabilities.” Pursuant to the RPWD Act, the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities (DEPWD) 2018 guidelines for written examinations make a case for “a uniform and comprehensive policy across the country… with flexibility to accommodate specific needs on a case-to-case basis.”

A review of the accommodations currently made available to CWDs for secondary examinations by the three national boards — the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), the Council for Indian School Certificate Examinations (CISCE), and the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) — points to how far we stand from what the RPWD and the DEPWD guidelines envisage.

The differences are stark when it comes to: (a) the range of disabilities recognised and provided for; and, (b) flexibility in subject choice. Notably, the CISCE is found lagging on both parameters.

Before reflecting on the gaps, it is important to mention that all three national boards have arrangements in place for ensuring examination process integrity. In each case, CWDs are required to obtain relevant assessments and certifications from recognised agencies to support their case for accommodations, their answer sheets are graded separately, and their final mark sheets mention that they have availed accommodations on account of disability.

While the CBSE and the NIOS have made the effort of mapping various types of disabilities and the accommodations that CWDs under each category can avail, no similar effort is in evidence in the case of the CISCE. The relevant CBSE and NIOS provisions cover a range of physical and intellectual disabilities with the CBSE going as far as to recognise behavioral issues.

Meanwhile, the CISCE’s 2019-20 regulations explicitly dwell only on specific learning disabilities and color-blind candidates and are silent on various physical disabilities, neurological disorders, blood disorders, and behavioral challenges.

An important fall-out of such mapping is that a clear set of general and disability-specific accommodations has emerged in the case of the CBSE and the NIOS. General accommodations, applicable to most CWDs, include extra time and reader-and/or-writer facilities. Disability-specific accommodations include use of assistive devices, alternative papers for visually impaired candidates, and separate seating and disabled-friendly examination centers.

Though these accommodations are not without their gaps (as we shall see later) and process-related challenges – CWDs with ASD and speech and language disabilities can find the multi-stage disability assessments that unfold in crowded, unfamiliar spaces unsettling and get little time to build rapport with readers and writers meant to support them – they nevertheless provide a framework for CWDs, their parents and guardians, and their schools within which they can consider their options.

The scheme of studies (subject groups and number of examination subjects to be picked from each group) for the CISCE offers lesser flexibility to CWDs. While all the three national boards afford CWDs the option of not studying a second language compulsorily, it is less easily availed in the case of the CISCE where the option is restricted to candidates with “severe learning disabilities”.

Further, even with a second language exemption, the CISCE’s scheme of studies still imposes a second compulsory subject and requires two of the remaining three subjects to be picked from a second narrow pool. In contrast, both the CBSE and NIOS impose no second compulsory subject and permit the remaining four subjects to be picked from a single (NIOS) or two (CBSE) wide pools.

The NIOS also offers all candidates the option of staggering their exam schedule. While the five-year duration over which all NIOS candidates can take secondary exams need not be emulated by the CBSE and CISCE, there is certainly a case for CWDs being offered the option of taking their exams in two stages.

Logistically, taking one set of subject exams at the time of regular board examinations, the second along with the supplementary exams, should be possible. A more relevant reform perhaps would be to give CWDs the option of taking a set of shorter exams during the course of the final academic year, rather than a single ‘final’ exam as is the case presently.

The above is not to suggest that all is well with the CBSE and NIOS provisions for CWDs. A key area that both must consider is alternative examination papers. This is already provided for in the case of candidates with visual impairments, and the next step would be to consider alternative question papers for other types of disabilities, particularly CWDs with ASD, speech and language disabilities, and multiple disabilities. CWDs from these groups, despite the varied nature of their challenges, face common issues in examination settings – of articulation, constraints in engaging with the abstract, the interpretative, and the long form answer.

A Government of Rajasthan proposal from 2014 offers a potential solution. It called for modified question papers in simple, direct language with greater weightage to multiple choice questions, true/ false statements, fill in the blanks, short answer questions, etc..The proposal also mooted relaxations in word limits, or responses to supplementary short objective type questions to build towards a full response in case long form answers were expected.

Such accommodations will only be consistent with the teaching strategies and curricular adaptations advocated within and outside the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (now recast as the Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan) and will ensure that CWDs are tested and evaluated on what and how they are taught – as indeed all students must be.

It emerges that some examination boards have applied themselves to the issues of CWDs and the twin cases this piece makes – for harmonisation of guidelines across boards and alternative question papers – have appeared on policy makers’ radars at some point of time or the other. The need of the hour is to bring all concerned on a common platform and ensure that exam system reform for CWDs gets the priority it deserves.

(Manish Dubey is a policy analyst and writer)

The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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