Letter to the Chronicle of Higher Education Editor

October 31st 2016

To the Editor:

On Sept. 18th 2016 the Chronicle published an article by Ari Trachtenberg titled Extra Time on an Exam: Suitable Accommodation or Legalized Cheating? (http://www.chronicle.com/article/Extra-Time-on-an-Exam-/237787) The article was included in a Special Report on diversity in higher education which was focused on disability.

Unfortunately, Prof. Trachtenberg’s article contains erroneous assertions and out dated assumptions. These assertions are wholly unsupported by the evidence in the literature which he appears to be unaware of. Clearly, Prof. Trachtenberg is an expert in the field of Electrical and Computer Engineering. However, he seems to be less well informed regarding the field of Cognition, Neuroscience, and Learning, the disciplines which have contributed the most to research on this topic.

The first incorrect assertion is that there is no research evidence connecting accommodation to disability. In fact, there is a substantial base of research dating back to the 1980’s which has looked at extended time accommodations and their relationship to disability beginning in the K-12 populations on state mandated examinations. There continue to be researchers contributing to this area today including Educational Testing Services, College Board, National Center for Educational Outcomes and several researchers who focus on the postsecondary population of students with disabilities. What we know is that the largest population of students with disabilities in post-secondary settings are students with cognitive impairments such as Specific Learning Disabilities, Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity disorder and various Mental Health conditions. What all of these conditions have in common, other than being covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, is that they are associated with functional limitations which require more time be provided to best ensure the student has an opportunity to demonstrate what they have learned in an academic setting. This is especially true in exam settings which have a discreet time limit for completion and artificial constraints that do not mimic the autonomy, individualized strategies, and resources one might have in a work setting in order to meet deadlines.

What is often misunderstood is that the various disabilities whose impacts require more time are not all the same nor is more time provided for the same reason. For example, a student with a reading disorder such as dyslexia may need more time to actually read sentences and process the questions and answers being presented on the exam. A student with AD/HD (of which there are three subtypes) may need more time to focus and attend to the task at hand, read and reread information to ensure that they comprehend the questions being asked, and attend to the visual details in sentences and problem sets. A student with a clinically diagnosed Anxiety Disorder or Depressive Disorder may experience the same disability-related impact as a person with AD/HD, and also an impact on processing speed or working memory. These individuals may need more time to hold and manipulate a test item or question in their mind and retrieve the appropriate answer, a facet of cognition known as working memory. While each of these needs may be unique to a condition or the experiences of each individual, they all rise to the level of a disability and as such, warrant accommodation.

The second issue raised in the article seems to be an assumption that all exams need to include speed as a test construct. This appears to arise from a belief that speed is associated with ability. However, similar to other research in the field, Horn and Blankenship (2012) report that in homogeneous samples of young adults “…measures in which there is much emphasis on speediness correlate near zero, perhaps negatively, with tests that require solving difficult problems.”(p.91). Because the research in this area is rich, most state level exams used to measure performance in the K-12 environment, now take a Universal Design approach and embed “accommodation” directly into the exam structure. This is based on the generally agreed upon understanding that demonstration of knowledge does not correlate with speed or that test taking speed is not relevant to content mastery in most real life situations. While it is true that assessments designed to measure proficiency on some types of tasks, such as responding with particular actions in a medical emergency, may require time as an element, most academic exams do not fall in this category. What is also clear, is that no amount of extended time will allow a student who has not learned the content being assessed, to demonstrate that they have.

Prof. Trachtenberg’s assumptions that students without disabilities might be disadvantaged by the provision of time accommodations given to students with disabilities is also contradicted by the body of research in this area. Published research which performs meta-analysis of studies in this area reveal that, in general, students without disabilities tend to see no statistically significant benefit if they are provided more time than what is typically allotted to complete scientifically validated, standardized exams. This body of research validates the practice of providing extended time to individuals who need it in order to remove the barriers created by the intersection of exam design and test settings and the impacts of an individual’s disability. Subsequently this creates a level playing field with non-disabled peers in the opportunity to demonstrate knowledge.

Prof. Trachtenberg’s call for specific accommodations for specific disabilities “just like grading rubrics and curves” assumes that human cognition can be quantified in the same terms as an engineering or mathematical solution. Moreover, his suggestion places the responsibility, and to some degree blame, squarely on the person with the disability. This demonstrates a limited understanding of the variability of human cognition, as well as on the functional limitations associated with the heterogeneous group of people with disabilities.

The final, and the most unfortunate, assertion is that “time extensions re-victimize some of (his) students”. This is the most unfortunate assertion because it demonstrates that Prof. Trachtenberg views individuals with disabilities as victims. Victims of what? The A.D.A. recognizes, as we hope Prof. Trachtenberg would as well, that disability is a natural and normal part of the human experience and not an affliction which victimizes otherwise “normal” individuals. As well, the assertion that the self-esteem of students with disabilities is damaged by providing accommodations is further evidence that Prof. Trachtenberg has little understanding of the field. Students with disabilities are well aware that what accommodations provide is a level playing field upon which they can demonstrate that they have achieved the level of mastery in their academic coursework which rises to the standards of the institutions they attend. In the end, this does not diminish their achievements but in fact highlights their abilities, which is all that that they are asking for and justly deserve.

Jamie Axelrod, AHEAD President

Nicole Ofiesh, Ph.D., Learning and Education Specialist, Lecturer, Stanford University