Are untimed examinations a reasonable accommodation?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers and schools to make "reasonable accommodations" for the disabled. As currently interpreted by universities and courts, this requires that, "Extended test time...should be allowed for written exams." The implicit assumption is that allowing additional time for tests is a reasonable accommodation, with only minimal impacts on the educational process.

I want to question that assumption. If the justification for timed exams is convenience, then use of untimed exams for students with disabilities would be harmless and easily justified. However, if there are educational benefits to timed exams, then this would not be so.

Testing and grades based on tests provide incentives for students to learn the material. They also enable the professor and others observing grades to judge performance. These functions are related. Grades serve as incentives because they provide information to those interested in this performance-employers and admissions officers for graduate and professional schools-and because students care about the decisions of these parties.


Grades provide an incentive for students to study and learn. However, there is a separate benefit from timed exams. In many areas of study (mathematics, economics, physics, language), some learning is through working of examples. Students can learn to work problems by working only a few. However, proficiency increases as the student works more examples. Thus, if a student knows that he will have a limited time to finish an exam, then he has a stronger incentive to work more problems in order to achieve greater proficiency. If a student is taking an untimed exam, then this incentive is reduced. As a result, the student will not learn the material as thoroughly.


The second major function of grades is monitoring. An important function of education is to provide information to future employers of students regarding students' ability and willingness to work, and grades measure some combination of these factors. Grades are also used as information in admitting students to graduate and professional schools.

A grade based on a timed exam is a signal that a student can perform some amount of work in some amount of time. Anyone interpreting grades can make the reasonable assumption that the student has demonstrated an ability to perform some task in some fixed time. It is this combination that is important to an employer. The key point is that all jobs contain some time pressure. There is no job for which the time required by a worker to finish a task is irrelevant.

As academics, we should not find this surprising. An assistant professor who takes twice as long as the average to write a paper or book is going to be disadvantaged in getting tenure. But it is not only professors who are under time pressure. The ability to perform an assigned task in a fixed time (whether writing enough papers to achieve tenure in the allotted time, writing a brief due for a court appearance, or analyzing data on a spread sheet in time to make a recommendation about next weeks' pricing decision) is a crucial part of any job. As academics, if our testing procedures do not measure this aspect of performance, then we are not providing useful information.

Some might argue that it takes longer for those with certain disabilities to learn a body of material, but once they have mastered it they know it as well as others. But jobs for which college graduates are hired require continual learning; they are not jobs that are done by rote, or in which one-time learning is sufficient. A college graduate in a responsible job will be forced to continually learn new material. If someone learns more slowly because of a disability, an employer hiring him with the expectation that he can learn at a certain rate will be disappointed. Of course, some jobs for graduates require less learning. These will generally be taken by graduates who learn more slowly, as shown by their getting lower grades on timed exams.

It is bizarre to single out certain students and allow them additional time for exams because of disability. Among any group of students, all are disabled with respect to the best student. Most would do better if they had more time for exams. One student may benefit from additional time on an exam because of a disability. Another student would benefit because he may be less able. There is no principled way to make any distinction, and any decision to give certain students untimed exams will lead to bias.


A policy of giving untimed exams to certain students will lead to several unfortunate outcomes. The initial effect will be to reduce the amount of information contained in grades. As employers come to learn that grades have less meaning, they will rely less on grades. Since part of the value of what we as academics produce is this information for employers, we can predict that the long-term effect of this policy will be to reduce demand for our services. If grades lose meaning, employers may come to rely on indicators other than grades in making their hiring decisions.

The current policy can even operate to the long-term disadvantage of the disabled. If no accommodations are made for disabilities, then employers will be indifferent to disability status. If a student has an "A" average, then the employer can assume either that the student is not disabled or that he has overcome whatever effect a disability has on his performance. However, if employers come to believe that students with disabilities have been given special dispensations, then it becomes important for employers to learn about any disability. While it may be illegal to explicitly inquire, employers may sometimes obtain this information in the interviewing process.

This stigmatizing function of the additional time granted to students with disabilities may even outweigh any benefits. In addition, some students with disabilities will get jobs above their capabilities because employers will not learn of their disabilities. Such students may fail in these jobs, with long-term detriments to their careers.

Additionally, as students begin to learn that being certified as "disabled" provides valuable benefits such as additional time on exams, we can expect students to begin to compete to be labeled disabled. This will be a form of what economists call "rent seeking," the spending of real resources to engross for oneself some benefit. Such expenditures are socially wasteful.

Academics should resist the encroachment on academic freedom implied by the interpretation of the ADA requiring untimed exams and should forcefully argue that untimed exams are an unreasonable accommodation. Universities, if they want to preserve their long-term value to society, also should resist this policy.

Paul Rubin is professor of economics.

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