Extra Time On High Stakes Exams

I’ve been in practice long enough to remember when very few students applied for extra time on the SAT/ACT college entrance exams, or the GRE, LSAT, and MCATS graduate exams, or professional board exams, and all that was needed was a doctor’s note that the student needed extra time due to a certain condition.  That was when parents and adult students thought it was stigmatizing to be labeled with a disability.  Parents often resisted allowing it even when school staff thought the child should be evaluated to receive accommodations, including extra time for exams.

Then parents and adult students began to realize that having extra time on high stakes tests could confer a competitive advantage, and there was a trickle, then a flood, of parents seeking diagnoses for their children, and adult students seeking diagnoses for themselves.  This coincided with the widespread recognition of ADHD and related attention disorders, and resulted in a flood of applications to SAT, ACT, GRE, LSAT and MCATS for extra time.  Many of these applications were based on attention disorders which were diagnosed for the first time just as the student was approaching the high-stakes exam, and were supported by flimsy or shoddy evaluations.

The result was that the test organizations pushed back with a series of guidelines for eligibility, based on the student’s having a history of needing and receiving accommodations in school before applying for accommodations for the high stakes test, including:

• Learning or attention disorders diagnosed earlier in life, preferably supported by subsequent re-evaluations (generally at 3-year intervals)

•Diagnosis based on evaluations including case histories and standardized measures, tending to be more thorough rather than less

• A history of accommodations having been provided by the school(s) the student attended

• A history of the student actually using the accommodations that were available

This policy favors early evaluation and accommodations in order to develop a track record by the time the application for accommodations on the high stakes test is made.  Students who have managed to get by despite learning or attention disorders, and who are evaluated and diagnosed for the first time in high school or college or professional school, especially just prior to the high-stakes exam, are unlikely to be found eligible for extra time.  High school and college special education staff have learned to be suspicious of claims for accommodation from newly diagnosed students.

The result is that there are fewer students qualifying for extra time on the basis of inadequate diagnosis and documentation, but also that some students who really should qualify can’t.  This is unfortunate because, at any point along the educational path, students who have been able to keep up so far despite their learning or attention issues may find themselves no longer able to do so.

Unfortunately, the emphasis on high-stakes tests often leads parents and older students to think about evaluation just as a way to qualify for extra time, a gatekeeping event, rather than as a method of clarifying the learning styles and issues of students so that they can know themselves better and learn more effectively.