The Hamilton public school board is apologizing for a "miscommunication" that left several special needs students at Parkview Secondary to write the provincial Grade 10 literacy test without the help of a scribe, an accommodation allowed to them under their individual education plans.

Around 10 students of the 49 who required the assistance of a scribe didn’t get one, said Peter Joshua, superintendent of student achievement with the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board.

The board sent 20 scribes to Parkview on Wednesday to help with the all-day test, expecting that enough school staff would be on hand to make up the difference.

'We misinterpreted the overall numbers on the actual day of the test.'—Peter Joshua, Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board.

The shortfall, Joshua explained, resulted from a "miscommunication" about how many Parkview teachers and educational assistants would be available to scribe.

“We misinterpreted the overall numbers on the actual day of the test.”

Some staff members were away on a field trip, while others were busy with separate duties related to the exam, he said.

The situation was stressful for the affected students, said Laurie Hazelton, co-chair of Parkview’s parent council. She volunteered on Wednesday to monitor the halls and hand out snacks to students during their breaks.

“There are a lot of upset children there, there is a lot of crying,” she told CBC Hamilton that morning. 

“One boy wrote the test in 10 minutes who doesn’t have a scribe. It’s supposed to take all day,” she said. “And the test is written, you can’t change your answer."

'For those students in that moment, it wasn’t familiar'

Scribes are often employed to help students with learning disabilities to commit their test answers to the page. Whether a child is afforded the accommodation is detailed in his or her individual education plan (IEP), a document that lays out a customized learning track for each student with special needs.

IEPs, Joshua said, don’t necessarily guarantee that a student will receive a scribe; sometimes it suggests a list of accommodations — such using speech-to-text software or receiving extra writing time — that can serve as alternatives.

Joshua said Parkview students who usually get a scribe but didn’t on Wednesday were set up with “assistive technologies.” But he admitted the arrangement caused “initial upset” for students accustomed to working with a scribe on most or all of their tests.

“We really do apologize,” he said. “For those students in that moment, it wasn’t familiar.”

Joshua said the board can apply to the Education Quality Assurance Office, the arms-length provincial agency that designs and marks the tests, to nullify the results of test-takers who may have failed as a result of the shortage.  

“There is a process that we can go through that we can request for an adjudication to see whether the test will count for these students," he said.

'Our learning, moving forward, is to ensure that there is no opportunity for that level of anxiety in the future.'—Peter Joshua, Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board

Board officials, he added, will also evaluate what happened in the lead-up to Wednesday’s test to make sure the problem doesn’t occur again. 

“Our learning, moving forward, is to ensure that there is no opportunity for that level of anxiety in the future.”

Course option

In general, students in Ontario are required to pass the provincially mandated test to graduate high school.

However, kids who fail the test — or miss it due to illness or other special circumstances — can try again in the subsequent years. Ministry of Education rules also allow students to enrol in a special literacy course in lieu of retaking the test.

In practice, most students at Parkview, a vocational school that's set to close in June, follow this route anyways, said Joshua. Among those students writing the test for the first time, “we have very few who are successful,” he said.

By passing the course, which is offered at the school level, a student also gains a credit towards his or her diploma.

“It’s quite often the better way for them to gain that requirement,” Joshua said.