The Clock is Ticking: Extended Time and ADHD

It’s no secret that children with ADHD and other learning disabilities can receive extended time in the classroom and on standardized tests. This accommodation can be life changing for some students, leveling the playing field and allowing them to succeed. However, recently there has been a storm of controversy surrounding extended time. Who gets it? How do they get it? How much is it actually helping? Who is it hurting?

Receiving an ADHD diagnosis is one of the ways for students to qualify for extended time. In public schools, learning-disabled students typically create an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) or a Section 504 Plan that outlines specialized instruction, services, accommodations, and objectives. In private schools, however, explicit plans are not needed.  Accommodations occur informally, as a special agreement between teacher and student. Importantly, students with ADHD often also qualify for extended time on standardized tests like the SAT or ACT. College Board outlines their guidelines for receiving extended time here.

Extended time has been shown to have dramatic effects on students’ scores. One study in 1998 by the College Board showed that extended time can increase a student’s score by three times. On the other hand, a more recent 2005 study by the College Board showed that this accommodation has limitations: “Some extra time improves performance, but too much may be detrimental. Extra time benefits medium- and high-ability students but provides little or no advantage to low-ability students.” Unfortunately, because of the huge advantage extended time provides, nondisabled students (especially those who are “medium- and high-ability”) are doing what they can to get it too…

A recent change in policy states that students are not flagged for receiving extra time. In other words, colleges cannot tell whether or not a student was given special accommodations. This change has sparked a troublesome trend. Nationwide, more and more students are receiving extended time, raising suspicions of abuse. Granted, more and more students are receiving ADHD diagnoses, and while some of the reason for more diagnoses may be heightened attention to and awareness of the disorder, it’s certainly not always the case . Recent studies have shown that it’s actually easy to fake ADHD to get a diagnosis…and who wouldn’t want the diagnosis if it meant extended time on your SAT in a hyper-competitive college application environment? One study found that neither self-report tests nor neuropsychological tests could distinguish between students with ADHD and those faking it.

Financial and socio-economic differences in students receiving extended time are also troubling. Nondisabled, affluent students have more access to evaluators and doctors than many disabled students who may require more attention. Nationally, about 2% of students receive extended time on the SAT and about 4% receive extended time on the ACT. However, in wealthy areas, up to 1 in 5 students receives extended time. That’s nearly 10 times the national average!

Unfortunately, in these highly competitive high school environments where the pressure to succeed on tests and attend a prestigious college is extraordinary, people are resorting to unfair measures to give themselves (or their children) the best shot. It’s to the point where many students who do not have extended time feel disadvantaged.

So, what can we do about it? The first question is if it’s vital that students with disorders like ADHD receive extra time. What are standardized tests testing? If it’s academic ability, should a student’s ability be judged independently of their disorder? Should the playing field really be leveled? Are standardized tests with or without extended time a fair measure of academic ability when they intrinsically require hours of focus and preparation? What about students who cannot afford study guides, tutors, or other resources? Unfortunately,  standardized testing is less standardized than we’d like to believe…

Nevertheless, given our current environment with extended time, it may be unreasonable for us to expect a perfectly fair system. Removing flagging requirements for extended time students has allowed us to avoid damaging stigmatization, and we agree that everyone should be given the accommodations that they qualify for without being punished. Unfortunately, this acceptance has caused a perverse incentive for more and more students to seek accommodations. So what really is fair? How do you really “standardize” a test? How do we get back there? Do we want to go back there? Let us know in the comments below.