March 29, 2006
Time to Think
By MARK FRANEK
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.
It would be a good guess, however, that such accommodations are not being awarded fairly across race and socioeconomic lines — it generally takes a lot of time, energy and, in some cases, money to get on the accommodations list in the first place. A student must have his learning disability documented by a psychologist, and then use the accommodations recommended by the psychologist on tests at his own high school.
The trend in requesting extensions troubles many schools and teachers. While they made no mention of requests for accommodations, more than 200 high-school administrators in January submitted a petition to the College Board that criticized the length of the test and asked the board to give students the option of taking each of the test's three sections (writing, math and critical reading) on different days.
But this recommendation would succeed only in making an already unfair situation worse by increasing the overall cost of the test for students. The SAT is not too long — it's too short. The fairest solution would be to make it untimed for everyone.
Extra-time accommodations fall into two categories: time and a half (so the regular 3 hour 45 minute test swells to just over five and a half hours) and double time. But when scores are reported to colleges, there is no indication whether students had the usual amount of time, or more.
This lack of transparency is untenable. If we continue to look to the SAT as a major gatekeeper to the nation's colleges and universities, we need to understand what got us to this point and also have an honest discussion about the potential solutions.
Back in 1999, a California man named Mark Breimhorst sued over the longstanding practice of flagging SAT scores as "obtained under special conditions" when test takers were given extra time. Mr. Breimhorst, who needed accommodations on tests because he has no hands, argued that this practice violated the rights of students with disabilities by potentially identifying them as disabled to admissions officers (the human gatekeepers) and thus forcing disabled test takers to forgo accommodations.
It was an effective argument, and the College Board, after some foot-dragging, agreed to drop the notation in 2002. What has been happening ever since is a little hard to quantify, but it is happening in just about every high school. More students are documenting their learning disabilities and using accommodations in their classes, the prerequisite set by the College Board for using accommodations on the SAT. For the record, I am not against accommodations for students at their own schools. In my 15 years of teaching, when students have asked me for an extension on an assignment for any reasonable reason, I have given them one.
But what my colleagues and I are noticing is that accommodations for the SAT in other areas — using tests with large type, for example — are not increasing nearly as quickly as extended time (the College Board said it couldn't say if this was the case). It is clear to all of us on the inside that what is driving this phenomenon is the pressure cooker known as the SAT.
The solution is simple: keep the test to one day but end the time limits. The College Board can surely reduce the number of overall questions on the test (there are now a whopping 170, mostly multiple choice, plus one essay) and design them so that they go from embarrassingly easy to impossible except for the top percentile of students to answer even without a deadline.
That goal should be to give everyone a chance to tackle every question and eliminate time as a factor — thereby accommodating the learning style of all children, including those with disabilities. The College Board needs to take its test back to the drawing board. The answers to these design challenges and issues of fairness may not be as easy as multiple choice, but they can be found.
Mark Franek is the dean of students at the William Penn Charter School.