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Keep accommodations

Posted Mar 29 2006 12:00am

In a editorial in the New York (NY, NY, US) Times questioning the design and use of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), Mark Franek challenges the granting of extra time on the test for students with Learning Disabilities. Although Mr. Franek, who is dean of students for a prestigious private school, also addresses other matters (e.g., use of multiple-guess format), it’s the accommodation that caught my attention. Mr. Franek professes an agreement with using accommodations, but his argument is apparent.

As high school juniors file into classrooms for their SAT’s on Saturday, there will probably be some chatter about how more than 4,000 of last fall’s tests were scored too low. What they probably won’t be aware of is how many of their fellow students may end up with higher scores because they are allowed more time to take the test. Last year, more than 40,000 of the two million SAT takers were granted special accommodations, mainly because of learning disabilities. This represents a doubling in the past decade and a half.
In a perfect world, accommodations on the SAT would level the playing field for all test-takers with learning disabilities. Is that the case? The College Board, the overseer of the SAT, declines to give figures on the family incomes of students who get extra time.

I have two major concerns about this argument. First, how many of those students who receive accommodations because of Learning Disabilities actually were found eligible simply because they or their parents were seeking an edge on the SATs? Later in the editorial, Mr. Franek paints an image of wealthy families using private resources to secure eligibility and then completing high school courses using accommodation. The large and often-lamented growth in the number of students identified as having Learning Disabilities since the 1970s means that many of the students who qualify for accommodations on the SAT this year were probably part of that growth during the 1990s. At least part of the doubling to which Mr. Franek refers must be students who were identified as having Learning Disabilities during their elementary years. We need data to determine how many of the students were determined eligible for special education services during their high school years.

Second, Mr. Franek’s argument overlooks the evidence about the effects of accommodations on students’ test scores. Brian Jablonski, Beth Edgemon, and I recently reviewed the literature on accommondations on high-stakes tests, so I happen to have much of the research at hand. Extended time is one of the two most common and most widely studied accommodations (the other is having tests read aloud). Extended time on tests does improve the scores of students with disabilities, but the improvement for students without disabilities is not so clear. In fact, in studies of multi-day testing—an accommodation that Mr. Franek rejects on other grounds—the scores of students without disabilities are no higher with extended time, but those of their peers with disabilities are higher. The absence of a differential effect undermines Mr. Franek’s argument.

Mr. Franek expressly suggests eliminating the timing of the SATs. This is probably a good suggestion, but not for the reasons he suggests.

Link to Mr. Franek’s editorial (free registration required).

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