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.

Nine Criteria For Usefulness in Evaluations of Learning and Attention Issues

(As consulting psychologist, I am asked to review private evaluations of learning and attention issues in students, and explain them to administrators, teachers, and even the parents whose children have been evaluated.  Since the quality and usefulness of evaluations varies, I prepared this memo as a guide for parents, as consumers, and evaluators, as providers.)    

This memo is prepared for parents who are considering seeking evaluation of learning and attention issues in their children, and also for potential providers of such evaluations.
Methods for evaluating learning and attention issues and disorders, and for reporting on evaluations, have evolved over the years, not necessarily in a consistent or integrated way. Professionals from several fields, with varied backgrounds, have entered the marketplace as evaluation providers. As a result, we have seen evaluations of varying quality and usefulness. Here are nine criteria that characterize a more useful evaluation:

1A specific problem statement provides the focus for the evaluation. It tells the readers what this evaluation is about, and why it is important for this child to be evaluated for this problem at this time.

2. A detailed case history places the referring problem within the context of the child’s developmental and family history. Part of understanding a learning and/or attention disorder is understanding its history in this child’s life, and whether it might also be reflected in this child’s family history.

3. Information from the school, from teachers and other staff who may have useful information to report, tells readers how the school sees the child and the referring problem. Detailed descriptions by teachers and staff help to clarify the the referring problem. Observations by the evaluator of the student in school can also shed light on the referring problem, especially where classroom behavior is contributing to the referring problem.

4. Information from other sources, which may include therapists, tutors, former teachers, etc., who can contribute to the evaluator’s, and the readers’, understanding of the child.

5. Behavioral observations of the child during the evaluation process, with specific reference to the referring problem. The evaluator’s astute observations of the child’s behavior can contribute to the evaluator’s, and the readers’, understanding of the child.

6. Selection of tests that are specific enough and comprehensive enough to address the referring problem. Selecting tests that focus on the child’s cognitive functioning with reference to the referring problem will help the evaluator and readers understand the child’s cognitive functioning with regard to the referring problem. Where multiple explanations of a child’s problem are possible, it can be important to have testing across different areas in order to rule some out and establish others as associated with the problem.

7. Report of test results, including all scores. Reporting all scores supports the evaluator’s conclusions and provides professional readers with the information necessary to understand the basis of those conclusions.

8. Discussion of all the foregoing information leads to an impression about why the child is having the referring problem, in the context of his or her developmental history and cognitive processes, including a diagnosis, if appropriate. By discussing all the foregoing information, the report makes sense of the child’s referring problem, and helps readers make sense of it also.

9. Recommendations that are specific to the referring problem, the specific child, and the child’s situation, will help insights in the report find integration and application in the child’s educational program. When multiple recommendations are included in a report, prioritizing recommendations helps educators and parents determine the most appropriate next steps in supporting the child’s education.