Testing accommodations–not always so accommodating

As the Urban School students gear up for Week 12 testing, students with learning differences face the additional struggle of making sure their testing accommodations are in order. This process can be intense and draining and add additional stress to an already tense time.

When asked to describe the process of getting extended time accommodations, an anonymous Urban School student said, “It’s pretty intense. You have to first be evaluated by a psychiatrist… you do different tests and puzzles and games [so the psychiatrist can] quantitatively evaluate [whether or not] to give someone extra time or any accommodations that they need.”

One such test required students to “circle every time there were two [identical pictures] in a row while listening to a radio and counting the number of times that it said the name of an animal,” said an Urban School alumna who received extended time accommodations.

When students with extended time needs enter high school, the evaluation reports are then sent to the ACT and College Board, who grant “by far the majority” of extended time accommodation requests, according to Learning Services Coordinator Laurie Williams. However, it can still be a stressful process because “The ACT and College Board decisions can be very different. It’s not a slam dunk that because you have accommodations at Urban, you will get them on the SAT or ACT or because you have accommodations on the SAT, you will get them on the ACT or vice versa.”

When asked what the psychiatrists who perform diagnostic tests are trying to evaluate, Williams said, “Generally what they are looking for is a disparity between very high cognitive testing and lower achievement testing so that based on the cognitive testing, they will predict the student should be achieving at a very high level and here she’s not, that’s when they’ll consider it a disability. But when a student is testing at an average level and achieving at an average level, then there isn’t necessarily a disability.”

At Urban, the Office of Learning Services is in communication with all incoming freshmen and grants extended time to anyone who has been evaluated and for whom accommodations are deemed necessary. According to Williams, about 15 percent of Urban School students have learning profiles: files given to teachers detailing the learning needs of each student with learning differences. The vast majority of learning profiles include extended time accommodations, according to Williams. The Urban School is less stringent on the specifics of the accommodations, which can benefit students, but inconsistencies between different teachers’ attitudes can be confusing.

When asked about her experiences getting extended time at school, the anonymous Urban student said, “To be quite frank, it really depends on your teacher. Some teachers bring in their own philosophy of whether they personally think extra time is fair or not. Some teachers will be extremely accommodating and give you whatever you need…some other teachers resist the whole idea of extra time and don’t withhold anything from you but are somewhat more reluctant to make extra time accessible for you.”

Williams further explained that she simply gives teachers access to each student’s learning profile, and a lot of discretion is left up to teachers.

“Some teachers adhere quite strictly so if it’s an hour test, the student gets an hour and a half. Other teachers are more generous. I don’t monitor that,” Williams said.

Students who need extended time accommodations not only have to deal with responses from testing companies and teachers, but they also have to face external and internal stigma about the perceived unfairness of extended time accommodations.

The Urban School student explained her thoughts on people’s comments on her extended time accommodations by saying, “I think people are always really ready to claim that it’s unfair without realizing that it’s actually what levels the playing field… I get a lot of people pushing their opinions about the fact that I get extra time, whether I deserve it or not, whether it’s unfair, whether or not they think they deserve it because they take more time than me… I have to try and keep it on the down low; I really don’t like people knowing.”

These comments can be especially hurtful because many don’t understand that learning differences don’t solely affect testing. “It applies to everything; it applies to how fast I read the homework at night, it applies to how fast I can do the problem set in class, it applies to everything. That’s why I get really upset when people say it’s unfair because it’s something that people don’t realize…impacts every aspect of my academic career,” said the anonymous Urban student.

Conversely, the Urban alumna detailed her feelings of self-doubt and said she’s faced “self-stigma [around the fact that] I always did pretty well in school and I always wondered ‘how much do I need this? Is it unfair?’ When other people don’t finish a test and I finish it with plenty of time and get to check my work because I have this accommodation, I have to remind myself that I have the accommodation for a reason.”

After leaving high school, students with learning accommodations face the uncertainty of getting retested as an adult. As the Urban alumna said, “I had to get tested as an adult to qualify [at college] when I turned 18. I’ve learned so many coping strategies for how I can get around some of the things that are hard for me so I improved a lot on the new testing so there was a possibility that I wouldn’t qualify for accommodations anymore.” She ended up qualifying for testing in the end, but explained that her experience receiving testing accommodations in college varied from her experience at the Urban School.

She continued, “[At college], since there [are] so many more students that they have to keep track of, there’s less of a culture like at Urban where [a lot of teachers] say ‘take as much time as you need’ … I had a [15 minute] quiz here… and I got exactly 8 more minutes. And they were really really strict about it.”