School and disability: exam accommodations, a real guarantee of equality?


Since the implementation of the 2005 law on equal rights and opportunities , inclusive schooling has become a major objective of the French education system. Today, it is a question of setting up a quality education intended for all pupils, whatever their differences and their needs.

If the financial and human resources allocated to the support of students with disabilities have increased in recent years, as was recalled at the national conference on disability on April 26 , they sometimes seem insufficient and do not allow to generalize the pedagogical practices necessary for this inclusion . Moreover, beyond the question of means, other barriers exist. For example, the provision of certain accommodations for pupils with so-called “special educational needs” (BEP), such as being assisted by a secretary or having a separate room during assessments, seems to crystallize doubts of some teachers and parents.

In this case, teachers and parents, and even students, may question the comparability of results between students. Is the “performance” of the student with a disability on the assessment “worth the same thing” if, compared to his classmates, he or she has benefited from a third-time, the support of an AESH (accompanying students with disabilities), or computer assistance?

Assessments to train and select

To fully understand this problem, we need to come back to what defines assessment in the classroom . Recently, the consensus conference of the CNESCO (National Center for the Study of School Systems) recalled the role of an evaluation in the service of learning  : taking stock of the student’s achievements and difficulties allows the teacher to propose pedagogical adjustments to meet their needs. This should help the student to better understand what he knows and what he does not yet know, by identifying his strengths and weaknesses, and thus allow better communication between the teacher, the student and the parents in providing a shared vision of the student’s achievements and progress. In short, the evaluationmust be a valuable tool for learning.

However, it appears that this role is not the only one attributed to evaluation. Indeed, according to the so-called “functionalist” sociological perspective , if it appears that the school must train, and therefore evaluate in order to train better, it would also have the objective of selecting.

Selecting means that the school must identify individuals who are suitable for occupying the most valued positions in society, and this, by sorting them on the basis of their individual merit (i.e. the efforts they make in their learning). In this case, and not when it serves learning objectives, evaluation makes it possible to classify pupils among themselves and thus contributes to legitimizing educational inequalities by presenting them as the result of differences in merit rather than influence . social determinants . In this perspective, the evaluation must be the same for everyone, in order to be sure of being in the right conditions to “classify” the pupils.

However, in the case of the assessment of pupils with disabilities or with special educational needs, setting up arrangements, modifying the conditions under which the assessments take place may suggest that these no longer guarantee equality between students, since some would be “helped” compared to others.

However, allocating accommodations such as a third time or the presence of an AESH companion is not intended to give an advantage but to compensate for the difficulties associated with the disability in order to allow equitable participation in the same activities and assessments than other students. The scientific literature also shows that, in the vast majority of cases, accommodations serve to “level the playing field” and do not provide undue advantages, in terms of academic performance, to the students who benefit from them .

The “backlash” effect: when developments reinforce stereotypes

Nevertheless, the subjective perception of these accommodations as “helpers” or “unfair” elements can have several negative consequences. Considering that these students receive preferential treatment and that their academic success is not the result of their own skills, but rather of the fact that they have received accommodations or additional help, perpetuates stereotypes and prejudices . This can contribute to the stigmatization of students with disabilities. In other words: by attributing the success of a pupil to the layout more than to his own competence, these pupils may suffer from the so-called “backlash” phenomenon .

As part of our DIVISE research project (funded by the National Research Agency), we have been able to show, for example, that if teachers and peers seem to recognize the performance of students who have received adjustments during evaluation, they actually rated them as less effortful or less competent, particularly when the accommodation involved a different workload .

This devaluation of their achievements and their work can have negative consequences on their self-esteem and their academic motivation. In order to prevent this discrimination, solutions exist to rethink the link between development and evaluation. For example, a universal perspective makes it possible to approach this issue by considering that all students have special needs . The reflection then focuses mainly on taking into account the obstacles encountered by all the pupils in an evaluative situation, as well as the modification of the latter to allow pupils with special educational needs to really express their competence without preventing others from demonstrating the their.

So rather than making adjustments to the form (readability and organization of the assessment materials) or the assessment conditions (formalization of the instructions orally rather than in writing) for a single student, it would be a matter of proposing these same transformations to everyone. Such a perspective would allow pupils suffering from specific disorders to better demonstrate their skills while putting the whole class group in the same conditions.

Be that as it may, improving the acceptance of inclusive education will necessarily involve confronting certain ideological barriers. Raising the awareness of teachers, students and their parents to the issues of inclusion, particularly during assessments, is a crucial step in achieving their collaboration within the educational community and supporting the full participation of all students.

Author Bios: Arnaud Stanczak is a Doctor in Social Psychology, post-doctoral fellow at the ACTé laboratory and Michael Jury is a Lecturer in Psychology at INSPÉ Clermont Auvergne both at Clermont Auvergne University (UCA)