An idea that spells inequality

September 17, 2004

Proposals to allow IQ tests to be used to diagnose dyslexia will increase discrimination, says Ross Cooper.

Dyslexia is at the centre of a bitter battle - and new recommendations on learning difficulties that are out to consultation until the end of October are likely to increase the controversy.

The Disabled Student Allowance Specific Learning Difficulties Working Group had to draft new recommendations after its earlier report, which proposed that only educational psychologists should write diagnostic reports on dyslexia, caused such a furore that the Department for Education and Skills scrapped the document and reconvened the group.

Many people in education believe that teachers qualified to diagnose dyslexia generally have more practical training in identifying the condition than educational psychologists, who are more likely to employ "psychometric testing" to reach a diagnosis.

Teachers were included in the reconstituted working group, but despite arguing to allow teacher assessments, most appeared to accept the main psychometric ideology of the original core group.

One of the main bones of contention is whether IQ tests should form part of the diagnostic process. Most educationists accept that psychologist Keith Stanovich blew the IQ model out of the water in the early 1990s.

Nevertheless, the working group seems to be clinging to the wreckage of the model and seeking to impose it on all assessors.

The testing of IQ is underpinned by four highly dubious assumptions. The first is that there is a general IQ rather than a number of different forms of intelligence. The second is that we can measure it. The recent review of dyslexia research published by the National Research and Development Centre for adult literacy and numeracy pointed out that IQ tests do not measure "innate ability" so much as educational advantage. This leads inevitably to social discrimination. The third assumption is that intelligence remains static. But we know that scores change through practice. The fourth assumption is that we need to test IQ to assess dyslexia. In 1999, the British Psychological Society explicitly eliminated "intelligence" from its definition of dyslexia; the British Dyslexia Association definition does not mention intelligence; and the Dyslexia Institute says dyslexia exists "regardless of intelligence".

Recently, some people have argued that students "incapable" of working at higher education level are slipping through the net by claiming to be dyslexic. What are universities to make of this claim - Jwhich is based solely on anecdotal evidence? Admissions officers who understand the academic requirements of courses should be concerned only with selecting the best students, not with things such as IQ tests.

A more important point is that no other group is required to provide evidence of "adequate intelligence" to gain access to higher education. How crass is it to demand this of dyslexics, who have often been falsely accused of being stupid all their lives? This would surely fall foul of the Disability Discrimination Act. Indeed, the Joint Exam Board no longer requires tests of "cognitive ability" when requesting access arrangements for exams.

The working group's brief was to "establish an equitable Disabled Student Allowance system enabling quicker and easier access". But there is nothing in the recommendations to speed the process, which routinely takes six months from diagnosis to funded support. Nor, for that matter, do they mention the lack of available assistive technology before higher education or the need for dyslexia-friendly learning in universities.

Instead, they seek to impose an arbitrary set of values that will increase the bureaucracy assessors face and inevitably lead to discrimination against dyslexics from lower socioeconomic groups.

I would urge all who are committed to equal opportunities to challenge these recommendations before the deadline of October 31.

Ross Cooper is head of the division of Dyslexia, Literacy and Learning Styles at the LLU+, London Southbank University.

The working party report can be found at www.bda-dyslexia.org.uk

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