The Conundrum of Extra Time on Standardized Tests


Ashna Satpathy
On February 2, 2019, Jessa Glassman, a student at Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles, sparked a conversation on a topic consuming the minds of many students and parents at her independent school: the exploitation of extra time. She put to words what many are suspicious of, but are intimidated to say out loud: “extra time has been exploited by some wealthy families who use their easy access to expensive medical professionals to give their children an upper hand in the college admissions process.” 
It is no secret that students attending elite independent schools such as Latin and Harvard-Westlake are burdened with the pressure of attending exclusive Ivy League schools, and as many have begun to realize, some will do whatever it takes to get there.
Issues of exploiting the college admissions process have been seen more and more since the news of the Varsity Blues scandal broke, in which wealthy families bribed their way into colleges, cheated on SAT and ACT exams, and unfairly exploited extra time.With it being a small affluent private school in a big city, it isn’t out of the question that Latin could be playing some sort of role in this exploitation as well. 
Before getting into Latin’s view on extra time, Ms. Hayman, the Learning Resources Department Chair, explains that “there is a general figure of 10% of students in the United States who quality for special ed designation, and or, for accommodations. You can qualify for accommodations and not necessarily be a student receiving special ed services.” But, she also mentions that she does think “independent schools have a higher percentage of students receiving accommodations, again because of access.” She further clarifies that this statistic, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that those in more privileged schools with special accommodations don’t actually need them: “I think if all things were equal, we’d actually see the national average higher than 10%, but because not everyone has the same access, it’s about 10%, so I don’t know that the higher percentage at independent schools is inflated because of resources, or if that’s a more accurate depiction of where the needs are of students who don’t have access and are being undeserved.” Ms. Pleshette, the head of the College Counseling Department, agrees that, perhaps, “the tragedy is that communities without means aren’t getting diagnosed enough, not that we’re getting diagnosed too much.”
Ms. Pleshette adds that “no college knows that you have taken your test with accommodations. It’s part of The American with Disabilities Act that there is no distinction between a test that was taken over several days, or twice the time, versus a test that was taken in normal testing circumstances.” Therefore, “it is unlawful to discriminate against those who have disabilities, and neurodiversity is considered part of ADA.”
Ms. Pleshette points out that standardized tests themselves are flawed: “part of the problem is what standardized tests are trying to measure,” referencing that the majority of students take ACT or SAT, but few people “learn or work in environments that are timed” and most often, people are required to “demonstrate the content [they] have mastered as opposed to the skills [they] have developed.” These flawed tests “create distortions, like a game system,” which is what leads people to find advantages. 
But the overall increase of students using extra time may not be as much of an issue at Latin as people may think. According to Ms. Hayman, “the numbers aren’t any more concerning right now than they were six or seven years ago, but I think there’s more awareness that’s happening,” which is because “one of the things Mr. Wright and I do each year is really look at our numbers of students that are applying for accommodations on the ACT and the SAT, and it has changed very little in the time that we’ve been here, so we’re mindful of keeping an eye on any trends that speak to something concerning.” Ms. Hayman and Mr. Wright are cognizant of the comments and concerns expressed by students and parents about an unfair advantage, and they do their best to make sure Latin students do not participate in abuse of accomodations. Ms. Hayman explains a scenario where “if a parent of a sophomore were to call me or Mr. Wright and say ‘so and so is really struggling with some testing, I’m concerned with the ACT or SAT coming up, I think I might want to get him or her an evaluation,’ that to Mr. Wright and I in the learning resource world is a red flag, because most students don’t get to tenth grade without having some pattern of struggle, and all of a sudden need an evaluation.” She says the Learning Resources Department usually responds with: “an evaluation is always going to give good information, it will show strengths it will show weaknesses, but do not pursue an evaluation if the sole purpose is for extended time on the ACT or SAT…if you student has made it to tenth grade with no intervention, this probably doesn’t require intervention or support.” This firm approach comes from their awareness of “opportunities to work with the system.”
Nevertheless, Ms. Hayman believes that “to the extent a student is struggling, it makes perfect sense to mobilize resources and try to figure out what the issue might be.” However, she is “very aware that people talk in communities and sometimes a conversation can be as simple as ‘oh you should have you son or daughter tested, because they’ll probably come up with some sort of variation of learning or learning disability and then they can get extended time on the ACT,” and because of this, the department “really [tries] to make sure that students that are being evaluated have some history of struggle or variance in their learning.” This can become a conflict when there isn’t balance of struggle and accommodation. Ms. Pleshette believes that “where the exploitation can come is that you can be diagnosed with something, but it doesn’t on a day to day affect you academic work.”
Latin, however, has found out that there are unscrupulous tutors that are encouraging students and parents to apply for extra time, without really knowing their medical details. Ms. Hayman explains that “a student would come in and say ‘my tutor thinks I need extended time,’ and this would be an eleventh grader that had no extended time.” Latin has taken concrete steps to discourage outside tutors and test prep companies from suggesting accommodations to Latin students, and parents from being tempted to avail of these, by sending a letter, titled the “Letter of Integrity,” signed by Mr. Dunn, outlining a code of conduct and where Latin stands on this issue. This letter was sent to all parents, major outside tutoring and test prep agencies, those that evaluate students for learning differences, speech language pathologists and occupational therapists, and the board of trustees. Ms. Hayman believes the article “makes a really clear message that we’re always going to act with integrity.”
Perhaps one of the biggest issues with the exploitation of extra time is the undermining of students that truly do need extra time or accommodations to have an equal playing field with their peers. Those using extra time as a leg up in the college admissions process delegitimize the learning differences of others. As Ms. Pleshette explains, perhaps society has a distorted view of the abuse of extra time: “the abuse is almost that like everything else in this country, opportunity and access is not equally distributed, and at the end of the day it looks like abuse, but I don’t think that’s fair. I think it’s vilifying the privilege instead of bringing up those that don’t have the opportunity.”