How Much Extra Time?

Another fight over extra time on exams has been temporarily resolved, leaving unanswered the questions of to what extent colleges should grant accommodations to students with learning disabilities -- and who decides what adjustments are appropriate.

May 18, 2010

Another fight over extra time on exams has been temporarily resolved, leaving unanswered the questions of to what extent colleges should grant accommodations to students with learning disabilities -- and who decides what adjustments are appropriate.

This time the battleground was Princeton University, where first-year student Diane E. Metcalf-Leggette sued the university last fall, charging that it stood in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act by declining to give her twice as much time as most other students to complete exams -- Metcalf-Leggette has been diagnosed with dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Metcalf-Leggette later registered a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education in February alleging that “the university retaliated by seeking additional information about [her] disability, questioning whether the student was qualified to attend the university and pursuing certain disciplinary action against the student,” according to department records.

The Education Department had already been investigating a similar complaint by another student, filed last November. That student says Princeton “failed to provide [a] student with a disability needed academic adjustments, such as extended time on tests, and failed to evaluate the student’s requests for academic adjustments,” according to the department.

Both complaints remain under investigation. The case of Metcalf-Leggette, however, has taken on a higher profile due to the lawsuit and the public filings that have opened the details of the case to scrutiny.

According to court documents filed by Princeton’s lawyers, Metcalf-Leggette requested special accommodations for her disability last August, two months after students were supposed to have notified the university of any special needs. While Princeton’s Office of Disability Services agreed to make certain exceptions for Metcalf-Leggette — such as allowing her to take exams in a room with limited distractions, allowing her to use a laptop, letting her take short breaks during long exams, and excusing her from taking more than one exam on a given day — they would not allow her to take extra time on exams, per the recommendation of a neuropsychologist hired by the university.

Metcalf-Leggette, who had lobbied for double the standard test-taking time allocated to non-disabled students (plus 10-minute breaks every hour), hired her own neuropsychologist to conduct an independent evaluation. Based on the second opinion, Princeton agreed to let Metcalf-Leggette take 50 percent more time on exams than most of her peers. But Metcalf Leggette insisted that anything less than twice the standard allocation would be inadequate, and declined to withdraw the lawsuit.

That is the version of events outlined in Princeton’s last court filing, a 35-page document largely devoted to denying charges of institutional bias against students with learning disabilities and other accusations levied by Metcalf-Leggette’s attorneys.

Metcalf-Leggette’s version of events could not be immediately obtained by Inside Higher Ed, and Metcalf-Leggette declined to be interviewed.

The legal saga came to a somewhat inconclusive end last Thursday, with Metcalf-Leggette dropping the suit in exchange for Princeton temporarily giving her 100 percent extra time on exams while the university assembles a task force to review its accommodation practices. Once that task force completes its review, the university reserves the right to reduce Metcalf-Leggette’s privilege back to 50 percent.

Sheldon E. Steinbach, former general counsel to American Council on Education, says he requires no task force affirmation to convince him of Princeton’s commitment to providing learning-disabled students with an appropriate level of accommodation. “The colleges and universities of this country … have bent over backwards to accommodate students that they have admitted to ensure that they have a successful academic experience,” Steinbach said.

In court documents, Princeton said it currently grants extra time on tests to 68 students. A spokeswoman told the student newspaper that the university allows some students 100 percent extra time for exams, though she said she could not provide further details for privacy reasons.

Acknowledging he has no inside knowledge of the case, Steinbach said he was inclined to doubt whether the medical opinion of the neuropsychologist hired by Metcalf-Leggette could be trusted as anything but an attempt to buy an undue advantage on exams.

“I could get you doctor by 4 this afternoon that would verify that you have an emotional disability that occurred over the weekend that will prevent you from handing in this article,” he said Monday in a phone interview.

“I would put greater faith on the university’s doctor, who has to make determinations of this kind on an ongoing, nonpartisan basis,” Steinbach said, “rather than someone who is hired on behalf of an individual who may just be in the position of advocating for her.”

The crux of the argument for being cautious on extra time is that granting it could be unfair to other students and erode the meaning of good grades. While federal law does apply, the government tends to defer to universities’ right to maintain their academic standards so long as “they’re not making up academic standards on the spot,” says Ann Franke, president of the consulting firm Wise Results LLC.

But Scott Lissner, chair of the committee on public policy and government relations at the Association of Higher Education and Disabilities, says that determining a point at which extra time begins to threaten academic integrity in any given case can be impossible to pin down with any precision. “I’m not sure how you make the distinction that 50 percent time does not undercut academic integrity and 100 percent would undercut academic integrity,” Lissner said. “That’s a pretty fine line, and it’s not distinct in science.”

Unlike certain standardized tests that have undergone a norming process with respect to standard completion time, most professors write their tests “by intuition and the seat of our pants,” said Lissner, who teaches at Ohio State University. Figuring how much longer a student should rightfully get to finish a test, given his or her particular inhibitions, he said, is a similarly inexact exercise.

However, there are ways it might be made more exact, says Howard Wainer, a research scientist for the National Board of Medical Examiners and a 1968 Princeton graduate.

Shortly after the news broke last fall of Metcalf-Leggette’s lawsuit against the university, Wainer wrote to the Princeton Alumni Weekly proposing a scientific approach to accommodating special-needs students more fairly. He suggested gathering data via a method of “low-dose extrapolation” often used in drug research.

“An exam should be given to students without disabilities who are divided randomly into groups that receive, say, one hour, two hours, three hours, etc.,” he wrote. “Then their average scores are plotted as a function of the amount of time they received,” Wainer continued. “This allows us to connect time with score, and thence to adjust the scores to what they would have been with unlimited time. Next, students with disabilities are provided unlimited time (if they request it). When we then use the adjusted scores, the field is level.”


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