Professor Rubin (First Person, Feb. 5) argued that if a student is taking an untimed exam, there is reduced incentive to work more problems and achieve greater proficiency. Disability Services for Students (DSS) does not recommend untimed tests as an academic adjustment. However, DSS does support extended time tests where additional time is given to complete the exam. An extended time still imposes limits. Therefore, the incentives still apply. Additionally, the institution has the latitude to deny use of extended time when speed is central to the skills and knowledge being taught.
Dr. Rubin stated that an important function of education is to provide information to future employers of students regarding students' ability and willingness to work, and that grades measure some combination of these factors. However, educators do not standardize grades and, as such, grades do not convey to future employers any specific information on either the amount of knowledge or the amount of effort contained in the grade. For example, how can an employer differentiate between grades resulting from a single test or paper and those resulting from weekly quizzes or the elusive "in-class participation?" Additionally, Professor Rubin compared timed and untimed exams, rather than exams with two different times. An extended time exam does convey that a student can perform "some amount of work in some amount of time."
Dr. Rubin's examples measured time in days, weeks or even (with tenure) years. However, in the classroom setting, educators measure time in minutes or hours. In the employment setting, an individual can use time management as a strategy to successfully complete assignments. In my experience with disability service programs for students, I have found that the longer the standard of time for test administration, the shorter the extended time needed to complete the tests. Some students found that extending the time allowed to complete the exam removed stress (which can exacerbate the disabling condition). Also, extended time, when coupled with other adjustments, such as locating the exam away from distractions, helped to maximize the ability to complete the exam in a timely manner.
There are critical issues to consider in using testing procedures to measure the ability to perform an assigned task in a fixed time. For example, what kind of time frame is being used, and is the testing situation a good predictor of (or analogous to) the time constraints in employment? Such employment tasks are also power tests. A power test is an achievement test; that is, the test measures a student's acquired knowledge and skills. On the other hand, a pure speed test is a test with severe time constraints, composed of easy items. Apart from this fundamental difference in what speed and power tests are measuring, research has concluded that there is neither a strong nor consistent relationship between speed and power. Within the university setting, the presumption is that examiners are attempting to measure power (achievement). However, often a great deal of emphasis still is placed on speeded examinations with almost no thought given to the effects of speed on the measure of achievement.
As far as Rubin's assertion concerning continued learning on the job, exams are not predictors of learning rates; they are measures of what the student has learned. Students with disabilities may take longer to process the intake or delivery of spoken or written information. The issue may not be the length of time to learn, but the time needed to convey what has been learned.
Research has shown that for the student without a disability, extended time does not significantly improve test performance if the test was well designed for the standard administration time. Appropriately administered and interpreted psycho-educational assessments allow a principled way to determine who is an otherwise qualified student with a learning disability or disorder under the law. Accurate interpretation also could suggest the appropriate amount of extended time required.
Neither the Rehabilition Act of 1973, section 504, nor the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) require untimed tests as an academic adjustment. As previously stated, DSS does not recommend such alterations in academic courses. The primary purpose of testing is to allow students to demonstrate mastery of the course material. Grades overall are nonstandard and abstract by nature. As such, unless speed is the factor being evaluated, the amount of information contained in grades is not affected by time. While grades provide invaluable information for employers, they are not necessarily predictors of success in the workplace, and should not be the only indicators applied in the hiring decision.
Some students may perceive it as a benefit to be identified as a person with a disability. However, attempting to deceive an evaluator skilled in adult assessment, or a service provider skilled in interpreting such assessments, would be difficult and costly. DSS requires students to provide evidence of evaluations that substantiate a specific learning disability or disorder. Assessments must include a comprehensive psycho-educational evaluation consisting of an intelligence test, achievement test, oral language assessment and social-emotional assessment, which document specific cognitive-processing deficits and achievement deficits related to potential. Evaluations must utilize assessment instruments with appropriate age norms. Evaluators must represent measures by standard scores or percentile ranks based on published norms. DSS makes academic adjustments on an individualized basis depending on the nature of the course and the impact of the disability.
The law does not require universities to make alterations that fundamentally alter the nature of their program. The well-established judicial principle is that the decisions of educators are entitled to deference. However, the Supreme Court has mandated that universities must clearly show that decisions or practices were nondiscriminatory. Academic freedom protects the rights to intellectual inquiry and discourse. It does not provide justification to flagrantly disregard the disability anti-discrimination laws instituted to protect persons with disabilities.
RoseMary Watkins is Director/ADA Coordinator in the Office of Disability Services and Compliance.