Where Does It Stop?: Extra Time on Standardized Tests

By: Shoshy Ciment  |  November 3, 2016

In a world where grade inflation is rampant, the College Board needs a way to objectively test aptitude and ability. Enter the SAT, a standardized test created as a national gauge for aptitude. Although the SAT was and remains somewhat flawed, it got the job done for many years. However, with the introduction of special accommodations (specifically extended time) for certain students, the standardized test seems to be losing its purpose. Eliminating the time constraint on a standardized test removes the possibility for an objective benchmark.

Extended time on standardized tests began as an earnest attempt to even the playing field for those students who would fall to the wayside under normal time constraints. The College Board website says, “Students should request extended time only if their disability causes them to work more slowly than other students. If a student is usually able to complete school-based tests in the allotted time, or if the student’s inability to complete tests is not related to a disability, then extended time should not be requested.”  The idea is that the extended time allows such students to have a chance at being judged on the same level as everyone else.

In theory, this sounds like a great idea. People with real disabilities should be given more time to make the test fair to them. But this concept becomes a problem in practice when the definition of “disability” is manipulated. The problem I am referring to is commonly known as “diagnosis shopping.” This is a phenomenon in which well-connected and prosperous families pay to get a diagnosis for their child that they don’t necessarily need, allowing them to receive extra time on a standardized test. The extra time often allows the child to receive a spectacular score. Thus, instead of correcting a disadvantage, extra time on standardized tests gives many an advantage.  In 2006, ABC news reported  that “the natural proportion of learning disabilities should be somewhere around 2 percent, but the College Board said that at some elite schools up to 46 percent of students receive special accommodations to take the tests, including extra time.”

To make matters worse, in 2003, the College Board stopped indicating whether tests were taken under special accommodations, including extra time. This meant that no one could see if the person who took the test had special accommodations or not. I, like many others, believe that this has encouraged more people to take advantage of this system.

Unfortunately, extra time accommodations do not stop at the SAT and college admission level. Special accommodations are also offered on the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) and the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), two of the hardest standardized tests a student is likely to face. In these highly academic fields, a student who feigns a disability to cheat the system is not only hurting themselves, but others. Studies have shown that students who are admitted to medical school and had extra time on the MCAT are less likely to graduate than those who were admitted and took the MCAT under normal conditions. Of course, these statistics could also stem from students who were actually qualified for disability accommodations, but simply could not make it through the classes. Even if that is the case, perhaps we should rethink the concept of extra time in certain instances. The medical field, for example, is highly demanding and often requires a lot of thinking on one’s feet. At some point, the student must realize that there is no extra time in real life.

What started out as a nice idea has turned into a crooked system. Too many people are buying their way into Ivy League schools and getting into a profession that might not be suitable for them over an extended time. This is not a problem that can be solved overnight. Until then, I’ll dream of the day when extra time minimizes disadvantage instead of widening it.extra-time