Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Slate on Flagging Testing Accommodations

Slate Magazine has this "Medical Examiner" piece on the flagging of the test scores of people who received accommodations. An excerpt:

It seems unlikely that learning-disabled children in the District of Columbia are smarter or more adept at test-taking than their cohorts. Either some of these kids don't need the extra testing time, or a lot of other children who are not getting it should be. Abrams' explanation is that parents of children at the city's private schools are manipulating the testing system to try to get their averagely bright children into Ivy League institutions. I asked Brian O'Reilly, the College Board's spokesman, whether he believed that the "accommodated" D.C. students were more dyslexic or hyperactive than the children whose scores they bettered on average by more than 150 points. "Are you saying that dyslexics can't be bright children?" he asked me.

Since the Breimhorst settlement, ETS says it has tightened its review of applications for untimed tests, trying to undercut the extremely fungible diagnostic criteria that lead many parents to "therapist shop" until they find a professional who will diagnose their child as hoped. But the D.C. data suggest that ETS has a way to go. Only about 60 percent of D.C. graduates take the SAT. Few get extra time on tests in the low-income Southeast section of the city, where in four high schools, not a single student passed an AP exam last year. It's a troubling example of the disequilibrium of opportunity.

Unlike ETS, the Association of American Medical Colleges, which oversees the MCAT, is taking a stand against misuse of disability diagnoses. The academy isn't in the business of assuring social equity. But it does want medical students who can become good doctors. Despite threats of lawsuits, the academy has refused to stop flagging results from untimed MCATs. Research led by the director of the MCAT, Ellen Julian, has shown both that MCAT test results are good predictors of medical-college performance, and that time extensions, on average, improve scores. Medical practice, of course, does not generally allow the luxury of time. "We think people with the ability to work speedily and efficiently will do better in medical school and as doctors," Julian says.

The Disability Rights Association, which sponsored Breimhorst's lawsuit, has not lined up to sue over the flagging of the MCAT. It has, though, sued the MCAT over its refusal to expand the category of students in California who are declared "disabled" and thus permitted extra testing time. The Americans With Disabilities Act states that students who are "substantially limited" in a life activity qualify for accommodations. But California law requires accommodations for anyone "limited" in a major activity, which some legal experts have defined as inadequate in relation to one's peers. It's a Lake Wobegon*-in-reverse standard of disability. And it could give virtually anyone with an average mind and a wealthy family a leg up on the admissions test.

The author all but says that the solution is to reinstitute flagging on the SAT. But I think the basic problem lies elsewhere: The overuse of timed tests. The author suggests that it makes sense for the MCAT to be timed, because medical practice "does not generally allow the luxury of time." Maybe that's true (though I think it's a lot more complicated than that -- ER practice may not always allow the luxury of time, but lots of other subfields will). But even if it makes sense to select medical students with timed tests (and those tests don't give too much weight to speed), why do we need to select college students and graduate students (and lawyers -- most of whom will not be trial lawyers) with them? I've spent most of my adult life in universities, and one thing I can confidently report is that college and graduate school (and even law school) emphatically allow the luxury of time. Why should my speed at answering questions matter at all, pedaogically speaking?

Of course, the real reason why we use timed tests so much is not pedagogical; it's administrative. It's much easier to administer and grade timed exams than it is untimed ones. (It's bound to be harder to write good untimed exams, too, though it's certainly possible to ask questions that spread the test-takers even under untimed conditions.) But that reason isn't good enough. Get rid of the timed exams, and the inequities the Slate author discusses will go away. There will no longer be any benefit for rich people without disabilities to shop for a disability diagnosis, and there will no longer be any detriment for poor people with disabilities who remain undiagnosed.

People with learning disabilities are really the canary in the coal mine here: They may be especially affected by the way timed exams overemphasize speed over substantive knowledge and aptitude, but they highlight a problem of far more general application. The solution shouldn't be to make the time limits stricter. It should be to remove the time limits altogether (or make only a portion of the test timed), and to craft exams that test, in appropriate proportions, the skills that are really important to scholarly and professional success.


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