Joung: Leveling the Playing Field
By Nick Joung, Contributing Columnist
Published on Tuesday, May 29, 2012
When I was in elementary school, I was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Since then, I have been given extra time on every test from pop quizzes to the ACT and the SAT until this year, when I stopped asking for it. During my freshman year of high school, I was one of about 30 students in a 600-person school who was given extra time. By the time I graduated, that number had ballooned to around 100, and the whole concept became a bit of a school-wide joke. The more I thought about it, the less fair extra time seemed to me.
At my high school and at other schools across the country, an ADHD diagnosis has become more of a way for rich parents to help their kids get better grades than it is a legitimate learning disorder. To be diagnosed, a child needs to demonstrate six of nine subjective traits including “often has difficulty organizing tasks and activities,” “often talks excessively” and “often interrupts or intrudes on others.”
The benefits of extra time are huge, and an ADHD diagnosis is easy to fake. I know at least two people who openly admit to faking their way through the psychiatric evaluation because they wanted a prescription for Adderall and extended time on tests. According to the Center for Disease Control, diagnoses of ADHD rose 22 percent in the four-year period from 2003 to 2007 alone. Diagnoses also vary substantially by region and are disproportionately more frequent on the East Coast. In North Carolina, 15.6 percent of teens were diagnosed with ADHD in 2008, compared to only 5.6 percent in Nevada. Such high variation in diagnosis among states should not occur for a disorder that is supposed to be primarily genetic.
That said, legitimate learning disorders do exist, and not all — and perhaps not even most — people who use extra time do so in bad conscience. In general, however, granting some students extended time on tests gives those students an unfair advantage over other students.
A test with a time limit inherently evaluates students on both mastery of the material and speed. If someone were bad at calculus, would they get to take a trigonometry test because they can’t handle the harder test? Of course not. The idea is ludicrous. Some students have difficulty coping with one of the constraints that is supposed to make the test challenging. This is how tests are supposed to work. Similarly, it is unfair to grant extra time to ADHD students on tests like timed writing, where time is the major constraint.
Extending time on tests for people who have ADHD is designed to even the playing field. However, according to a study by the College Board, students who receive extended time actually perform better on average on the SAT than those that do not. Perhaps this is because students with extra time receive an unfair advantage. There is also a disparity in the demographics of those who successfully complete the process of applying for extended time. According to a 2000 audit in California, those who receive extended time on the SAT are disproportionately white, wealthy and attend private schools.
People often justify the present situation of granting some students extended time by arguing that, in the real world, there will be a much larger emphasis on our processing power as opposed to our speed and that time constraints are usually placed on tests more for convenience than anything else. However, if time is going to be a factor in any test, it is only fair that the same time constraints be placed on everyone.
I’ll be the first to admit that I probably wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t used extra time in high school. On the SAT alone, that advantage helped me and 55,000 other students a year achieve higher scores on one of the most important tests we will ever take. The effect of our efforts to make the education system more fair seems to have had the opposite effect.