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January 18, 2005

The Scandal of Test-Taking Privileges Under the ADA

Gail Heriot tells an interesting story about the Americans with Disabilities Act at The Right Coast. This Act, as interpreted by universities, is a limitation on academic freedom and an opportunity for corruption that favors the rich. Students who can show that a psychologist has diagnosed them with a mental problem can get 50% extra time on tests. The result is what you'd expect. As Heriot describes, though, we professors don't have to dirty our hands too much. The University will administer the test for us.
While I am sympathetic to many of the aims of the Americans with Disabilities Act, I’ve never been a fan of the ADA itself. But I’ll save my litany of complaints for another day. Right now my problem is not with the Act but with its implementation. On some college campuses, ADA accommodations for the learning disabled are administered by people who have never taken a similar exam and are unaware of what the professor is attempting to accomplish in giving the exam. And they don't ask. ...

How can the ADA commissar know whether the student should be given 50% more time than other students or 100% more time if he's never looked at the particular exam? One size doesn't fit all. Some exams require the student to do a lot of reading and a little writing. Others require a little reading and a lot of writing. If a particular student has a reading problem that makes him read half as quickly as the rest of the students, he would need only 5% more time on one test and 75% more time on another in order to "erase" his disadvantage.

...A few years ago, one of my colleagues commented to me that she had heard that at some colleges as many as one third of students are receiving ADA-mandated accommodations on exams. At the time, neither of us had any reason to believe that this was true at USD (and I still don’t), but I had noticed that each semester one or two of the essays seemed much longer than anyone could humanly write in the time period I had allotted, and I wondered whether the total number of accommodations could be much higher. I therefore asked at the records office how I could find out how many of my students were receiving accommodations and what kind. The word came back to me in precisely these terms: "It’s none of your business."

It was an odd response, since it seems to me that it is precisely my business. I’m a law professor. Among the many things that I do, I draft and grade exams that test law students on what they have learned and how well they can apply it. It's my job t make sure those exams are the best they can be.

Part of what I test for is the ability to spot legal issues quickly. ... But if a large fraction of the class is getting extra time it certainly does, the results of such an exam are apt to be quite random. Before that point, it’s probably better to beat a retreat and devise an exam that doesn’t test for speedy analysis, even though something is lost with such a change. The problem is that if "[i]t’s none of my business," I don’t know about it, and I cannot adjust the exam accordingly.

Why am I bringing this up now? While grading exams this past week, I ran across an essay in which a student had written considerably more than any other student. But this time I didn’t have to wonder whether the student had gotten extra time. The student had carefully written on the exam the amount of time that had been allocated--50% more than the rest of the class.

Obviously, the amount of time given this student was too high. ...

There's actually an easy way to decide whether the ADA special provision for the student is legitimate or not: Ask whether it would benefit a student who wasn't disabled.

For example, suppose the special treatment is to allow the student to have a special desk that would fit his wheelchair. Would normal students benefit from that desk? No. We could even say that any student who asks for one can get one. The effect of the ADA would then just be to say that the professor *must* provide one to a disabled student.

Professors, of course, do this kind of thing even without a federal law. It is common to allow a foreign student to use a dictionary in tests. The professor wants to test economics knowledge, for example, and making the grade depend on English ability as well would make the test less informative. Using my rule, this is an ok accommodation because the professor could allow all of the students to use dictionaries, if they wanted to.

How about allowing 50% extra time? Well, that is bad, according to my rule. All the students would like to have that special treatment, because a normal student can benefit from it too. There is an opportunity for fraud, and, of course, the very fact that all students would benefit shows that ability to work under time pressure is something that the teacher is testing.

Posted by erasmuse at January 18, 2005 03:16 PM

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