Special Assessment Conditions (SAC) for NCEA Exams: How to get free help with alternative evidence.

What are Special Assessment Conditions (SAC)?

When working towards the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA), most students undertake internal assessments throughout the year and sit end of year examinations under regular conditions, such as all students together, for a set amount of time, with no talking.

Special Assessment Conditions are changes to those regular internal assessment and examination conditions to enable students with a permanent or long term disability to be assessed fairly.

The disability might be a medical, physical, or sensory condition, or a specific learning disability. Special Assessment Conditions must reflect the usual way that the student learns.

For example, a student applying for extra time for NCEA should have a history of having extra time for assignments and exams.

Special Assessment Conditions include:

  • Additional time to complete work.
  • Reader or writer or both.
  • Rest breaks.
  • Separate accommodation.
  • Use of technology to complete and present work (e.g., computer).


Why might a student with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) need Special Assessment Conditions (SAC)?

SAC may be needed for a student with autism for the following reasons:

  • Handwriting is difficult to read.
  • Handwriting is very slow.
  • Behaviour is disruptive to other students.
  • Require regular breaks.
  • Obsessive compulsive behaviours may take up exam time.
  • Organisational skills and time management skills may mean they do not finish the exam in the usual time allocated.
  • Concentration skills may be impaired in exam situation.
  • Sameness in routines (e.g., if the student usually has a teacher aide they will probably need one during exams).
  • Sensory issues associated with the exam conditions (e.g., large room, bright lights, sound of others’ breathing, clock ticking, scratching writing sounds, room with different lighting) may overwhelm the student.
  • Use of a reader/writer could interfere with the concentration of other students.
  • Heightened anxiety, impairing student’s ability to demonstrate knowledge.
  • Anxiety management techniques may disrupt other students (e.g. breathing techniques).

 What Special Assessment Conditions (SAC) are students with autism likely to get?

The New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA), classes autism as a medical condition.  Students with autism are likely to qualify for separate accommodation, but the application should specify all accommodations that help. In order to qualify for additional SAC, the student must also have a specific learning difficulty that has been assessed by an independent professional (for a fee) or by the school gathering alternative evidence (at not cost to the student).

Who can assess students for SAC applications?

There are two types of applications

    1. School evidence/alternative applications
      a. Special Education Needs Coordinators (SENCOs) and other learning support staff collect documented evidence from school-based testing during the applicant’s time at school.
      b. School evidence applications are only for the category of learning disorders.
      c. School evidence applications may be based upon the historical findings of a registered professional, with the school requesting continuation of assistance by showing current need.
    2. Applications support by report from a registered professional
      a. Report should be no more than four years old for a learning disorder, or for sensory/physical/medical conditions report should date from the most recent specialist visit.

What is meant by a registered professional?

A registered professional is likely to be a psychologist who is registered under the New Zealand Psychologists Board, or a professional with a Level 3 (or Level 3) Assessor Qualification, who is registered with the New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER).

What are the differences between a report from a Level C Assessor and alternative evidence?

Both methods should help your child to obtain SAC, should they be eligible.  A key difference is that alternative evidence is free for families, while a specialist report can be costly. School-based evidence applications can only be made of the category of learning disorder. You will need a specialist report if you are applying for SAC under the category of sensory/physical/medical conditions.

A successful SAC application under school-based evidence is not confirmation of a diagnosis; only a registered professional can make a diagnostic assessment.


What is the process of applying for Special Assessment Conditions (SAC)?

First time applicants have different pathway with different deadlines compared with students who have previously had SAC approved.  There are different timeframes depending on whether a student has learning difficulties or has a medical, physical or sensory condition.  Autism is considered to be a medical condition for SAC. While the same assessment report may be used for between one to four years, a new application to NZQA for SAC must be made by the school for the student each year.  So while there may not be any additional reports required after the first year, the schools need to apply to NZQA to confirm last year or change last years SAC.


What does a reader/writer do?

The main aim of the reader/writer role is to help the student overcome their learning disability while ensuring exam conditions are maintained so that it remains fair to other students.  The reader/writer may read the exam paper to the student, or write down the student’s spoken answers, or do both.  The reader/writer will only perform the task that is approved by the SAC and will be in a separate room with the student, away from the other students.


Who needs to find a reader/writer?

The school is responsible to find a suitable reader/writer. However, Altogether Autism suggests that if your child has an aid to help with schoolwork throughout the year (and if they are suitably qualified), it would be beneficial to also have this aide as the child’s reader/writer.


Who can not be a reader/writer?

A reader/writer can not be a teacher, tutor, friend, relative, another candidate, another student at your child’s school, or anyone else with a close personal relationship to your child.


What are the qualifications required of the reader/writer?

NQZA do not specify any qualifications that they require readers/writers to have.  Altogether Autism suggests that families should ensure that the reader/writer knows about autism before working with the child and understands the particular behaviours of the child. Our Prism Professional Development workshops are ideal for training reader/writers to suitably support students on the spectrum. See Prism Professional Development.


What is the Special Assessment Conditions (SAC) application timeline?

Please note that the dates below are estimates based on SAC applications for. Consult your child’s school for definite dates or go to the NZQA website.

Key dates

February-March: Parents to complete student SAC historical record and provide the school with any reports from qualified professionals.
April: End of Term 1 (12 April) is the application deadline for first time applicants with learning difficulties as well as rollover requests for previously approved SACs.
Sensory, medical & physical applications may be accepted in Term 4 up until the final exam day.
May-June: Schools talk with students to decide what entitlements are needed for each external exam session.
July: Choices and entitlements for external November examinations are to be submitted by the end of term three.
October: First time application submissions open for the following year.
November: Applications for the current year’s first time Sensory/Medical/Physical SACs close on the last exam day.
December: Schools are to initiate a needs assessment before the next school year starts.
See this article for more details

Are there alternatives to Special Assessment Conditions (SAC)?

The school may also help to manage the learning difficulty by increasing the internal assessment component of the student and/or by entering the student into fewer external exams.


Concluding Comments

The process for applying for SAC is the responsibility of the school but parents should be proactive. The increased emphasis on alternative evidence by the NZQA and Ministry of Education should make SAC possible for all students who need these for a fair NCEA assessment of their knowledge, skills and understanding. Students, families and educators are welcome to contact Altogether Autism for free support and information.


Original article written by Aimee Harris, Psychologist, PhD. P.G. Dip. Prac. Pych (ABA) M. App Psych. (1st Hons., ABA). (2014), revised and updated by Altogether Autism (July 2019). 


Useful websites

New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) website (http://www.nzqa.govt.nz/)

Ministry of Education http://inclusive.tki.org.nz/

NCEA Review https://conversation.education.govt.nz/conversations/ncea-review/


Learning Support Action Plan

New Zealanders want an education system where all children and young people can take part in education and can learn and achieve, whatever their needs or differences.

One in five children and young people need some kind of learning support.

The Learning Support Action Plan 2019 – 2025 sets out priority actions that will make the most difference, to ensure that children and young people get the right support, at the right time.

Thank you to everyone who has contributed to this plan to date. There will be more opportunities for collaboration and feedback as the plan is implemented.



Disclaimer: The statements expressed in this article are the opinions and interpretation of the author only.  While every attempt has been made to present current and accurate information, the information from the sources available is somewhat confusing, and we cannot guarantee that inaccuracies will not occur.  Altogether Autism will not be held responsible for any claim, loss, damage or inconvenience caused as a result of the information in this article.



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