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.

7 thoughts on “The Clock is Ticking: Extended Time and ADHD”

  1. I think extended time is intrinsically unfair. I am not arguing that a student who is diagnosed with ADHD should not receive extra time, just that for standardized tests it definitely benefits all that use it. The amount of benefit is substantial. A student with extended time has the ability to read through everything during the test, to look back at answers, and to take time while answering. However, a student without extended time doesn’t have this ability because of the extreme time constraints placed on them. I firmly believe that extended time allows its students to take the standardized test to the best of their ability, and that students without this privilege are not able to. If a normal student is not granted extended time and was not able to read the last passage for a reading section, that student is at a disadvantage. Said student may have been able to answer every answer correctly, but due to a time constraint, couldn’t answer them in time. This means that that student did not complete the test to the best of her ability. I think an easy resolve would be for colleges to be aware that certain students have used extended time for the test. This is an under-addressed issue that should be very controversial and talked about.

  2. I have ADHD, dyslexia, and depression. I have had an IEP since I was in second grade, I know extended time is needed. Parents will put there kid into a class called “Learning skills” for the last 2 years of there high school, to get extended time on the ACT or SAT. This has become such a problem in the last few years that the SAT and ACT deny most kids extended time. Because of this I got denied extended time. This is heartbreaking for me, 4 of the 5 sections involve reading. Since I was born to today I struggle with reading. Studies show that having dyslexia makes the brane work 5 times harder to complete the same task as a person with out it. So the abuse of the system by people without a learning-disabilaties hurt people who actual need the help

  3. At our kid’s school 40% of the students get extra time. It’s an open secret that parents who can shell out $5k can buy a psychologist’s diagnosis that will past muster with the testing agencies. The students who play by the rules suffer, and come to believe that if virtually everyone else is cheating then they are suckers for being honest. Do learning disabled students need more time than other students? Or just enough time? Presumably it’s the latter, in which case all students should be given extra time — and truly level the playing field. The abuse can be stopped if the testing agencies were willing to face the issue head on. Unfortunately litigious parents can stifle the changes that clearly need to be made. Alternatively the highly ranked colleges could replace standardized tests with their own, unique tests and cut the abuse that way

  4. My son has ADHD – predominately inattentive type. Let me start by saying that he does not care about his “score” on the SAT in order to get in to college. He has felt dumb all of his life because of school and how it is structured. Despite his intelligence, his inability to focus has plagued his high school experience and has lead to a loss of self confidence which has resulted in a GPA and PSAT scores that are much lower than what his intellect would reflect in students without ADHD. His GPA and SAT scores have never reflected his knowledge of the subjects. He did receive extended time on testing for the SAT, finally, in his junior year. Not in order to get into the best school; at this stage I am not even sure he wants to go to college because of his high school experience and how it has made him feel about his intellect. So those of you worried about competition – fret not. But now at least his test scores, whatever they may be, reflect his actual knowledge of the subjects and not his disability. Do we disallow a hearing impaired child from taking the SAT because they cannot hear the instructions? Do we allow a child who is blind to take the SAT without Braille because all of the other students are measured that way? Of course not. We accommodate those children. So why would we ask a child with ADHD inattentive to do something that they physically cannot do; take the test to demonstrate their knowledge in the same allotted time as is standard? That would simply not be the right thing to do.

  5. There are many children who genuinely need the extended time. The problem is with the abuse that has now become so prevalent. For this reason, testing time should be extended for everyone. In a way, just do away with time pressure when testing subject knowledge. If there is a reason to test how quickly a student can read and process the material then extended time makes non sense.

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