by David R. Parker, Ph.D.
Over the past 20 years, the educational world has placed a growing emphasis on test scores. These include classroom unit tests, statewide assessments such as ISTEP, and national high stakes tests such as the SAT or ACT. Given this trend, it is not surprising that an increasing number of students with disabilities has requested accommodations on exams. Examples include extended test time, testing in a quiet room, using a computer to type essay answers, having someone (“reader”) read the test questions aloud, and/or having someone (“scribe”) type the student’s spoken answer verbatim.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA-AA), test-takers with disabilities have a right to “reasonable” accommodations. The law is designed to strike a fair balance: mitigate the impact of the person’s disability while maintaining the integrity, or technical standards, of the assessment process. So, providing an undergraduate with dyslexia 50% more time on a European Post-War History midterm due to his frequent need to re-read test items is reasonable. Asking surgeons to repeatedly restate their spoken directives for a nursing student with an auditory processing disorder would not be reasonable; the patient could suffer or even die due to all the delays.
Before coming to CRG, I coordinated the services for students with LD and ADHD at three universities. In that role, I met with students to discuss their testing experiences and carefully reviewed their documentation to determine any reasonable accommodations they might need. These accommodations often made a critical difference in students’ ability to have a “level playing field” on exams in order to demonstrate what they had learned (vs. showing professors the impact of their decoding skills, processing speed, or capacity to regulate their attention). Interestingly, as the use of test accommodations has grown, some controversy has risen alongside this trend. Some reports maintain that students “fake” symptoms of ADHD or learning disabilities in order to obtain accommodations. This practice, known as diversion, would clearly provide those individuals with an unfair advantage. Over the years, I have had some meaningful conversations with students who qualify for test accommodations. They hold back from utilizing these supports, however, because of their ethical beliefs that all students should have as much time as they need on exams. It’s complicated.
Next June, I’ll celebrate the 20th anniversary of a wonderful group I am honored to belong to: the Disability Review Panel for Educational Testing Services (ETS). ETS creates and administers various high stakes tests such as the PRAXIS for future teachers and the GRE for individuals who want to pursue graduate school. For the last 19 years, this group of about 30 colleagues from around the U.S. has helped ETS develop policies and procedures for test-takers with disabilities. We also work in pairs to determine the reasonableness of test-takers’ requests for accommodations on ETS assessments. Many of us have run college disability services offices; some panelists are psychologists; others come from medical backgrounds. We meet each spring at the ETS headquarters in Princeton, NJ for a 3-day professional development workshop. This annual gathering, along with webinars throughout the year, helps us stay current with legal and educational trends. Since we are all advocates for individuals with disabilities but also appreciate the fairness of a “reasonable” interpretation of the law, the work is dynamic and endlessly informative.
My experiences with ETS dovetail with my role at CRG to create meaningful opportunities for professional cross-fertilization. Since joining CRG in 2008, my colleagues here have been incredibly respectful about seeking my perspective on documentation questions for clients who need testing accommodations. We have seen a rise in the number of clients who need help obtaining those accommodations on high stakes tests such as the ACT, law school exams, and medical licensing board exams. In response, we now offer a Documenting Accommodation for Colleges and Testing Agencies (DACTA) service. I work with the client and the CRG providers who will conduct the assessment to gather information about the client’s testing experiences and to fine-tune the process that might document the impact of their disability on these important exams. This can be complicated if the client is highly intelligent and/or has a limited history of needing formal accommodations in the face of impressive academic achievement.
In a similar vein, my work at CRG has enriched my appreciation for the assessment process and all the time and thought evaluators invest in it. As I read the evaluation reports that accompany a test-taker’s request for accommodations on an ETS test, I now have a deeper appreciation of what is being said via the test scores, clinical observations, and diagnostic summaries given my work at CRG. During the annual ETS meetings, I am able to share perspectives learned here at CRG as we discuss the best ways to inform evaluators about how to document test-takers’ needs. I have learned so much from respected colleagues at CRG and ETS and welcome future opportunities to absorb and share their wisdom in my work with clients and test-takers.