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.

2 thoughts on “Extra Time On High Stakes Exams

  1. I agree 100% with your article. I am an adult student preparing for the GRE. I’ve never applied for accommodations, but I have always had severe difficulties with math. Why didn’t I apply for accommodations? Well, in high school my teacher allowed me to take longer on tests, even to the point of giving me a note if I was late for my next class. I would stay after school for hours so she could tutor me while she graded papers. Therefore, I didn’t need to apply for accommodations because my teachers gave them to me without question because they saw how hard I worked. I even managed to get mostly all A’s in those classes despite performing horribly at the beginning of all the lessons.

    In college, I only took ONE math class, statistics… that teacher did the same thing for me as my high school teachers and even waved the final exam for people who were happy with their grades. I had an A+ because I did extra credit and worked hard.

    My problems centered around incorrect copying and working memory deficits. I have difficulty correctly translating information from the board or test sheet onto my scratch paper before I begin computation, the farther the problem is from where I am doing the computation the worse it is. This is one of the reasons I FLIPPED when I found out the GRE was on the computer. I have always coped by putting my scratch paper almost on top of the test to make sure I don’t make any errors in copying the problem. There goes that coping technique! I am notorious for mixing up multiplication and addition signs, division and subtraction signs, and for reversing the order of numbers. I usually get the correct answer to the problem that I have written down, but that problem is not always the problem that was asked on the test.

    I also coped by underlining and circling key words in the problems and using a blank neon flashcard to place under the line of text I am reading or to cover up other problems so I didn’t accidentally end up with half of problem 1 and half of problem 2 written down on my scratch paper… can’t do that on the computer GRE test :(.

    ETS only accepts documentation of disability from:
    1. College
    2. Workplace HR department
    3. State vocational rehab

    1. I’m no longer in college, that’s out
    2. I work in a bar… we don’t have an HR department
    3. UGH… seriously?!?!

    It’s utter B.S. and I’m totally screwed.

  2. I teach in a public high socohl. I earned a undergrad double major in economics and political science as well as a MA in political science before deciding to pursue teaching as a career.I had to take numerous classes in education in order to be “qualified” to teach. Most of the classes were a waste of time. Learning how to teach is largely on the job training. The only valuable time spent in the socohl of education was the internship program where I actually got in front of students and taught. I would talk to my supervising teacher and discuss what worked and what did not work.Most people entering the teaching field are “qualified” to teach a subject even though they may have had only one or two classes in that area. This in not enough. Subject area mastery is crucial to being a good teacher. That can’t be achieved by taking one or two classes.Pay teachers more it they majored in something other than education. Encourage teachers to go back to socohl to take classes in the subjects they teach in order to achieve mastery.

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